Despite thriving medical and underground markets, cannabis in Greece remains stigmatized

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Greece is a small and picturesque country, occupying an Alabama-sized 50,000 square miles of mountainous terrain replete with thousands of islands, age-old ruins, and the longest coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, writes Erin Hiatt.

It is home to many ancient traditions that span centuries, like the theatrical art forms of drama, tragedy, and satire that were born there to honor Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, madness, and ecstasy. Greece is also also the birthplace of direct democracy, a form of government which continues to this day.

Today's cannabis culture in Greece, however, is much less enlightened than its storied history might suggest. Little has been recorded, though much speculated, about the ancient Greeks' use of cannabis, given the country's strategic position bridging Europe and the Middle East. Even so, it's believed that cannabis was part of the ancient Greek pharmacopoeia for the treatment of inflammation, pain, and injuries, as well as its myriad uses as a fiber.

Nonetheless, Greece banned the cultivation, importation, and use of cannabis in 1890, and did not take up any conversation about legalizing or regulating cannabis until 2016, despite a thriving, albeit very underground, cannabis scene.

“Greece has a cannabis culture, and quite a big one, actually,” said a 26-year old Greek citizen, who wished to remain anonymous, due to the stigma. And it is true, cannabis is the most common illicit drug consumed among Greek adults ages 18 through 65. “Unfortunately, the law is quite strict on cannabis prohibition, which results in people having to gather at places where police officers find it hard to operate (kind of rough neighborhoods)," he said. "[But] there are one or two annual festivals that are opposed to cannabis prohibition, which are supported by a great amount of people, thousands at least."

For the past two years, the capital city of Athens has convened a cannabis expo dedicated to sharing the medical and pharmaceutical achievements in the cannabis space, as well as educating the public about products such as CBD, vaporizers, and clothing. The most recent expo, held last January, attracted 150 vendors and 20 speakers — some of whom came from American states like Colorado and Michigan. If there are more freewheeling festivals similar to the Boston Freedom Rally or Seattle Hempfest, they are tough to track down.

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“There is no open consumption of marijuana in Greece,” said Yannis Zervos, who was born in Greece in 1944 and has lived there most of his life. “Traditionally, this was an area in which hashish was used, and associated with ‘decadent’ elements of society.’” Zervos notes that Greece is quite conservative, and that he has observed a strong cultural affiliation of marijuana and criminal activity, particularly among Albanian gangs. “Psychologically, the voting public might be ill-disposed to its legalization,” he added.

The laws regarding prohibition and consumption in Greece, however, take a somewhat more progressive, Portugal-like stance, where drug consumers who run afoul of the law are treated as patients rather than criminals. Still, Greek Law No. 4139/2013 stipulates that for those who obtain, process, or cultivate cannabis plants in numbers indicating even just personal use may still be sentenced to prison, although for no more than five months.

Our 26-year-old Greek friend says that the country's continued prohibitionist attitudes may stem from a lack of education around cannabis, a thriving illicit market, and potentially even, he speculates, political corruption. (According to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, with zero being the most corrupt and 100 being the least, Greece scores on the more corrupt side, with a score of 45).

However, there is some slow progress being made on the medicinal cannabis front. In 2016, under the leadership of populist left-wing SYRIZA Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a working group was convened to debate medical marijuana legalization, and in 2017, Tsipras announced that medical cannabis would be legal for patients with a doctor’s prescription. Yes, a prescription, unlike in the U.S., where medical professionals are only allowed to "recommend" cannabis, since medical marijuana remains federally illegal.

Greece’s law allows for licensed physicians to prescribe cannabis so it can be more easily accessible in pharmacies. However, according to Health Minister Andreas Xanthos, medical cannabis will not be subsidized through state health insurance. Meanwhile, non-intoxicating CBD products have been legalized as long as they contain less than 0.2 percent THC, and hemp is also legal to cultivate with ministry authorization.

Even though Greek authorities don’t have definitive numbers, it is believed that there are thousands of medical cannabis patients in Greece. However, convoluted regulations have made it difficult to obtain the medicine, despite a 2017 go-ahead on allowing medicinal cannabis imports, mainly from Canada and Israel. In an attempt to correct the limited supply, last June, Greek lawmakers allowed for patients to grow cannabis at home. “It has thrilled patients and their families, who were tortured with having to go abroad to find cannabis,” said Konstantinos Syros, who leads Organisation for Patients Supporting Medicinal Use of Cannabis.

Currently, patients living with HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, chronic pain, neuropathy, nausea, and cancer pain may seek out medicinal cannabis, although the law does allow a physician to prescribe it for any condition if they feel it will benefit the patient.

But access remains a problem. Last November, Greece granted grow licenses to two companies, while twelve more are expected to be issued soon. At a news conference, Greece’s Deputy Economy Minister Stergios Pitsiorlas indicated that the first medical cannabis products will not be available for another 12 to 18 months.

Avid interest in the Greek market is already coming from outside investors in countries like Canada and Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia, Germany, Belgium, France and Russia. All told, more than 30 countries have applied to invest in Greece’s nascent cannabis market, which could put Greece ahead of Denmark as the EU’s top cannabis supplier.

Stergios expects that there will be large productions of medicinal cannabis as well as industrial hemp, and analysts believe that the investments under consideration could lead to around 7,000 jobs, bring investments of around 1.5 billion euros, and position Greece as an international hub for cultivation and processing.

But for our Greek friend and others like him who are not medical cannabis patients, they will have to stick to getting together at someone’s house in an out-of-the-way neighborhood to consume the ancient — and decidedly illegal — herb.

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