The United States cannabis market is the largest in the world with sales expected to surpass $92 billion by the end of 2021. Despite this, cannabis is still federally illegal. It is difficult to gauge the full scope of the health and societal problems caused by cannabis prohibition, but we do know that the plant’s illegal status has put millions behind bars, blocked safe access for patients who could benefit from its use, and drastically hindered the ability of researchers to discover more about marijuana’s therapeutic potential.
Although the United States is way behind on the cannabis research front, thankfully a handful of other countries are picking up the slack. A growing number of people are using already using cannabis therapeutically and providing anecdotal data, so the pressure is on for science to catch up by conducting appropriate clinical research and create fair and progressive new laws. Nations like Israel, Canada, and The Czech Republic are changing the global narrative surrounding this plant by offering the world ground-breaking medical studies, quality control laboratory testing, and numerous other types of important research-based services.
Cannabis medicine is the way of the future, and so much more research is needed to understand the full scope of benefits one can experience from using this plant therapeutically. From relieving mental health conditions to curing cancer, it seems there is nothing that marijuana can’t do for our bodies. To learn more, make sure to subscribe to The Medical Cannabis Weekly Newsletter for other articles like this one, as well as exclusive deals on events and products.
No country in the world is better known for cannabis research than Israel. Not only is this the nation where it all began, but they are still paving the path with their modern research efforts today. Back in the early 1960s, Israeli scientist and University Professor, Raphael Mechoulam, first identified and isolated tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the cannabis plant. His discovery jumpstarted the medical cannabis revolution and helped change how the entire world looked at this plant.
Today, Mechoulam is President of The Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is leading a team of researchers that continue to uncover the numerous medical benefits associated with the now hundreds of compounds that have been found in cannabis. He has received millions in grants to create cannabis-based treatments for aggressive forms of cancer, and he was recently awarded the Technion Harvey prize for his work in the field.
By 2017, many in the industry had nicknamed Israel “The Holy Land” for medical cannabis; still known as an international hub for some of the most advanced scientists and researchers in the industry and it’s one of the few countries in the world where doctors prescribe cannabis-based medications with some regularity.
A great number of our most important cannabis studies come from Israel, including many about the endocannabinoid system, cannabis and cancer, mental health, addiction, and the list goes on. Israel has seen so much success with cannabis research that more restricted countries (like the U.S.) rely on Israeli data for their own scientific and legal initiatives. Although Israel has been shipping out cannabis products for some time now, many believe the small country’s most valuable export is medical data.
Although Canada tends to get all the glory, Uruguay is actually the first country to legalize the sale and possession of recreational cannabis, which has now been in effect for almost a decade, since 2013. In the industry, Uruguay is known for jumpstarting the federal legalization movement in many different nations, as well as creating the first medical cannabis export program in Latin America that launched in 2019.
Shortly after legalizing adult-use cannabis, Uruguay began to seriously invest in scientific research and was soon recognized as a “hotbed” of medicinal cannabis innovation. Uruguay has many unique advantages that make it a prime location for cannabis research and emerging trends. First is the country’s size and political stability, which make it easy and safe to control cannabis production and distribution.
Also, it is also worth noting is the country’s prime growing location, at a latitude that allows for off-season production to North America and Europe. Their short and mild winter season lasts from around June to August, which means Uruguayans can cultivate cannabis almost year-round. All that, combined with other factors such as transparency, reliability, legal and economic security make Uruguay a perfect region for cannabis industry development.
Malta, officially referred to as The Republic of Malta, is a small Mediterranean country formed by a small group of islands, located south of Italy and east of Tunisia. With a population of just under 500,000 and occupying only 122 square miles, Malta is the smallest country in the European Union, both by land size and population.
However, this small European archipelago is set to become a major global hub for medicinal cannabis research and production. In March of 2018, medical cannabis was officially legalized in Malta, which was followed by the Production of Cannabis for Medicinal and Research Purposes Act a month later. This legislation included all the stipulations for cultivation, processing, consumption, importing and exporting, therein.
Earlier this year, TechforCannEU announced that it had secured funding of up to 2.5 million euros from Malta Enterprise, the nation’s economic development agency, to begin establishing the world’s first medical cannabis industry tech accelerator.
This program offers up-and-coming cannabis entrepreneurs in the areas of healthcare, biotech, agriculture, infrastructure, and digital technology to receive government funding for their work, and thus allows them to reach milestones faster, with less error and expense, ultimately increasing their probability of commercial success. The funds will go directly to the start-up companies selected to participate in the program’s first round.
Canada is the largest to country to legalize recreational cannabis for adults. In 2018, five years after Uruguay, cannabis became the second nation to end prohibition. As one of the most economically secure countries, with a large land mass and decent sized population, Canada has positioned itself as a global leader in numerous different industry sectors including agriculture, investment opportunities, and research.
Lab testing is a big part of Canada’s cannabis market and the country is home to a very large number of labs across all of its provinces. Well known labs offer the industry a wide variety of testing services including cannabinoid and terpene content, contamination levels, analytical chromatography, and much more. Only lab tested material can be used in the production of cannabis-based medications, and Canada has cornered that sector.
Some of the largest cannabis research centers in the world, including Michael G. DeGroote Centre, McGill, and McMasters, are located in Canada; as well as some of the biggest corporate names in the industry. Companies like Tilray’s, HEXO, and GW Pharmaceuticals – to name a few – are well known to researchers, investors, and consumers alike.
The Netherlands, Amsterdam specifically, is a region that is well-known for cannabis. Although it is illegal (which is a shock to many), the Netherlands has one of the most lenient marijuana decriminalization policies on earth. Recreational cannabis is used freely by adults and available for purchase and consumption in coffeeshops around the city, some of which have become famous for this exact reason.
In 2003, the Netherlands launched its national medical cannabis program and the country that has long been synonymous with cannabis tourism and redlight districts, suddenly began to make a name for itself as a beacon of marijuana science and testing.
The Netherlands has since received funding for numerous different studies, some of which were very large scale and covered everything from medical applications to treatment of mental disorders, and even limitations on academic performance. Facilities where these trials are conducted can be found all over the country.
Since Amsterdam is stuck in a legislative catch 22 (similar to the US), where cannabis is legal for adults to purchase in the coffee shops, but illegal to produce and sell, the Netherlands are conducting what they refer to as “weed trials”. Starting this year, cafes in 10 different cities will get a legal supply of quality cannabis to sell in their shops as part of a four-year experiment to see if they can deter the nation’s illicit suppliers.
The Czech Republic legalized medical cannabis in 2013 and is one of many EU countries that have been loosening cannabis restrictions in recent years. What makes the Czech Republic unique, however, is that this Eastern European nation is now home to one of the most advanced and expansive cannabis research facilities in the world: The International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI).
The ICCI launched in 2015 when a few prominent organizations – Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Prague KOPAC, and Dioscorides Global Holdings (DGH) – joined forces with the Czech Republic’s Minister of Health and created this medical marijuana research hub. The goal is to create a center of excellence that offers the cannabis industry a variety of science-based research services.
According to the website, “The main work of the ICCI is to provide scientific instruments to public and private institutions all over the world. The purpose is to enable scientific examination of the relation between bioactive cannabis compounds and the effect on the human organism in the treatment of specific syndromes and, in the future, systemic health disorders,” said the ICCI CEO Pavel Kubů.
The research conducted at ICCI focuses on three main subjects: Biomedicine, Life Science, and Policy Science. ICCI is an organization that “combines various institutions (universities, high-tech companies, associations) and their capabilities to provide service to the broad array of entities around the world interested in the development of cannabis and cannabinoids as medicine.”
Spain is one of the first European nations to decriminalize personal use of cannabis products for adults, but their medical laws leave much to be desired. It might have something to do with the high rates of tourism in the country. Earlier this year, the committee of the Spanish Congress voted in favor of a that will establish a subcommittee to investigate the effects of regulated medical cannabis programs in other countries.
Regardless of the difficult laws, Spain is the location of numerous largescale cannabis research projects that have helped shed new light on its pharmacological uses. In 1998, researchers at Madrid’s Complutense University found that THC can be used in the treatment of cancer, by activating programmed cell death in certain brain tumor cells without harming surround cells and tissues.
More recently, pharmacologist José-Carlos Bouso, alongside Professor Raphael Mechoulam and Dr. Franjo Grotenhermen from Germany, as well as other leading industry scientists, founded the Spanish Observatory on Medical Cannabis (OECM). The organization is comprised of the top cannabis minds in the industry, and the observatory is said to “promote the works of its members and also highlight the ongoing research done by other Spanish health professionals who are looking into marijuana research.”
What About The United States?
You likely noticed by now that the United States didn’t even make the cut. It may seem surprising that the country with largest global cannabis market is not on the list. So let’s quickly cover the DEA’s Controlled Substances Act, which still, to this day, categorizes “marihuana” as a Schedule 1 narcotic with high likelihood of leading to abuse and addiction, and no known medical applications. According to the scheduling, cannabis is more dangerous than cocaine, but sure, let’s pretend none of that is part of their political smear campaign against a healing plant.
Regardless, US cannabis prohibition has thrown a huge wrench in the wheel of the fast-paced medical research movement. Many of these restrictions can be somewhat avoided during the formation of a recreational market, but when it comes to clinical research, certain criteria needs to be met in order to secure funding and authorization to conduct studies on human subjects. One of the criteria is that the product in question also needs to be legal.
Ultimately, not much has changed here in the last five decades and researchers who do wish to study the plant are limited to acquiring subpar and very limited samples from the only government-approved cannabis production facility in the country – The University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy’s National Center for Natural Products Research, which established the “marijuana project” in 1968.
Weed politics in the US are not pretty, but pressure from the public is mounting to deschedule cannabis and open the gateways for proper research initiatives. Until the laws change, patients will continue fighting for fair access and prominent companies will get their data from elsewhere.
As a fun, recreational, adult-use product, all the most popular industry trends will likely come from the US. When considering cannabis as a powerful medicinal product with hundreds of therapeutic compounds to be harnessed and thoroughly studied, look elsewhere in the world. The countries on this list may be lacking the pizazz that our flashy recreational markets possess, but they are leading the way when it comes to research and development, testing, analysis, and data.