Prohibition Partners explores the recent shift in Belgian legislation in the context of the dramatic policy changes sweeping across mainland Europe.
An Unusual History
Belgium has experienced an unusual history in terms of drug policy. For decades after the prohibition of alcohol, all drugs were treated similarly harshly. There was no legal distinction between the various classes of controlled substances up until 2003, and a cannabis offence would be treated the same as a heroin or cocaine offence.
In 2003, a distinction was introduced that differentiated cannabis from other illegal drugs and introduced concept of ‘public nuisance’ and ‘problem drug use’. The directive allowed for possession of small amounts of cannabis for private consumption.
After the election of the right-leaning government of Prime Minister Charles Michel in 2014, the Belgian government announced an “end to the policy of tolerance”.
However, Joep Oomen, coordinator for the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) has stated that in reality the framework of the law has not changed.
Oomen claims that last years declaration merely referred to zero tolerance for consumption of cannabis in public places, rather than a blanket criminalization of possession. He stated:
Belgium was quick to introduce medical cannabis treatments for Belgian citizens in the wake of changes in the Netherlands in the 1990s. However, few doctors and specialists are educated on such treatments and despite the legality of such options, patients in Belgium rarely get prescriptions from domestic doctors.
In July 2001, Belgium permitted the use of medicinal cannabis as a treatment for glaucoma, MS-related spasticity, AIDS and chronic pain by those in possession of a valid prescription from a registered doctor.
The 2001 bill allowed for the sale of small quantities of medical cannabis in pharmacies but very few patients have their prescription filled by Belgian pharmacists. Instead, patients obtain cannabis from one of two main social clubs currently operating in Belgium.
Alternatively, as a result of the lack of available information many cannabis patients travel across the border to the Netherlands, where they can visit a doctor or obtain small quantities from coffee shops.
As a result of the convoluted system, many patients opt to make the trip across the border to the Netherlands. Medcan estimates that these trips to the Netherlands cost Flemish patients €360 on average.
CBD oil and other CBD products are legal in Belgium and you can order them online. Patients can also obtain Sativex, the market-approved sublingual spray produced by British company GW Pharmaceuticals. However, products that contain THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis, are not legal in Belgium.
A Royal Blessing
A royal decree, signed in 2015, legalized the sale of cannabis for pain alleviation.
Maggie De Block, Minister for Social Affairs and Public Health told Radio One that other drugs may soon follow:
Despite these changes, the social club system is the most popular destination for medicinal cannabis in Belgium and Sativex remains the only CBD product in the pharmaceutical market.
The sudden legislation change left a gap between the state and medical professionals. This inspired two Flemings to set up non-profit organisations. Medcan and the Medical Cannabis Club aim to cultivate cannabis plants for medicinal use according to the highest quality and health standards. The associations work closely together with a network of doctors, patients and lawmakers in order to improve access to cannabis treatments.
Medcan is responsible for raising awareness of medical cannabis treatments. The group register prospective patients and help connect them with doctors who are trained and registered to provide medical cannabis prescriptions.
Once approved, patients are free to pick up their personal cannabis plant at plantations run by the Medical Cannabis Club.
Dominque van Gruisen, founder of the Home-Grown Cannabis Academy, a local company that provides consultancy work for cultivating cannabis explained:
“I believe there is widespread support for medically prescribed cannabis among our population. Increased and more organised non-profit production of medical cannabis is not just good for patients but for society as a whole, as it can create more employment and reduce costs for the government.”
By opening the first self-regulated club, Belgium became the first European country where cannabis is legal under certain conditions. Similarly to Spain, where consumption and cultivation of cannabis in private premises is free, the statues of the Cannabis social clubs exclude commercial outward-bound activities like sales and distribution of cannabis to non-members.
The clubs have had a tumultuous time dealing with local law enforcement. Mambo Social Club in Hasselt, was brought to court and ordered to stop growing their own cannabis plants. However, Trekt Uw Plant, a club in the Flanders region, continue to produce their own plants for members of the network.
Many Belgians claim that the conservative government have been nervous about making any radical change in the risk that they lose a proportion of the voter-base. Despite the relatively conservative drug policies in Belgium and the lack of any major cannabis imports, there exists an interesting economic opportunity.
Belgians have begun to create their own social clubs, non-profits and lobbying groups as they see legislative changes sweep their neighbouring countries. The anti-prohibitionist movement, led by domestic social clubs, has had a seminal influence on the Belgian cannabis market.
The economic benefits of the cannabis industry could be vast. Belgium boasts a significant industrial hemp industry since the 1960s, and Belgian farmers contributed to European growth operations in the 1990s, supplying cannabis to Dutch coffee shops. The rise of the CBD market across Europe could bring a boost to the traditional hemp market in Belgium.
As it stands, most medical cannabis patients in Belgium obtain plants from the Medical Cannabis Club or purchase Sativex from a local pharmacy. Others travel expensively, across the border to the Netherlands. Nonetheless, these options come with a high degree of effort and cost. As CBD oils and imports remain legal, there appears to be an opportunity for E-commerce platforms to capitalise on the nascent market of patients in Belgium.
Prohibition Partners believe it’s clear that Belgium has potential to become a medical cannabis exporter, unfortunately, the conservative Reformist Party has been dragging their feet with regards to any clear legislative change as no major developments have occurred since 2015.
Proximity to the Netherlands has decreased some medical urgency for patients in Belgium. However, economic opportunities and neighbouring competition may encourage Charles Michel and his government to consider a significant policy change.