It took a Russian invasion to move the issue of Ukraine cannabis legalization forward, but as a result of the war, medical reform is now pending—and the rest of Europe is watching.
Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko announced on June 7 that the government was moving a medical cannabis bill through the still-existing legislative infrastructure. The announcement, made via social media, comes as a draft bill is headed to the now besieged Parliament for approval.
The recent decision to legalize cannabis in Ukraine is, so far at least, one of the most dramatic triggers ever used as a reason for such a change anywhere. It is also a telling statement of what is now almost universal acknowledgement of the medical efficacy of the plant.
“We understand the negative consequences of war on the state of mental health. We understand the number of people who will need medical treatment as a result of this impact. And we understand that there is no time to wait,” Liashko said in his Facebook posting. “Therefore, we have already prepared a legislative basis to ensure a full cycle of cannabis-based drug production in Ukraine: from cultivation and processing to full-fledged production.”
A large Israeli study of 8,500 people, which published its results earlier this year, confirmed as of February that cannabis is effective at treating not only PTSD but other health impacts of trauma.
The fact that this reform is now coming as most countries in Europe have moved to at least recognize the medical efficacy of the plant means that, at minimum, Ukraine is moving with its neighbors. While the war will undoubtedly disrupt any plans to export the plant, it may well have an impact domestically on citizens who are shell-shocked by the ongoing invasion.
Cannabis Reform in Ukraine
Even before Russian tanks rolled into the country, Ukraine was teetering on the edge of reforming its cannabis laws for the last several years. In fact, last summer, advocates tried to pass a bill, which ultimately failed in the country’s Parliament after a few cannabinoid-based medicines were approved in the spring of 2021.
The new bill now moving through the Ukrainian Parliament is a tweaked version of the same.
No matter the current reform trajectory, cannabis is not a “new” plant in the region. During Soviet occupation of the country in the last century, Ukraine was one of the biggest producers of hemp in the world.
As cannabis reform of the more modern kind began to land in Europe after the German decision to legalize medical use in 2017, Ukrainian advocates began to organize marches and other political demonstrations to urge reform.
In early 2019, the Ukrainian Association of Medical Cannabis was created with the backing of 16 different public organizations. This group subsequently created a petition calling for medical cannabis reform that even the acting health minister at the time, Ulana Suprun, supported. The petition drive succeeded in obtaining the 25,000 signatures it needed to trigger parliamentary action. The following year, a national poll on medical cannabis revealed that 64% of participants supported medical reform.
The country is now only the second of the former Soviet-occupied countries to consider cannabis legalization for any reason. The first was Georgia, which eliminated both criminal and administrative sanctions for use in 2018.
The Strategic Significance of the Announcement
A part from the dramatic timing of the announcement because of the occupation of the country, the move comes at an even more interesting and strategic time for the issue overall from both a regional and global perspective.
Right next door in the European Union (which Ukraine may still join), cannabis reform is also on the top of the political agenda in multiple countries. Less than a week after the Ukrainian announcement, the government of Germany announced abruptly that it would be holding hearings during the month of June to try to understand how to implement recreational reform. For most of the spring, insiders in Berlin have suggested the government was dealing with higher priorities than cannabis legalization—from the coronavirus to the war in Ukraine. Now that Ukraine is fast-tracking cannabis reform of its own, delaying recreational reform in Germany sounds even more specious.
Cannabis Reform in Europe
Ukraine may well end up joining the EU if it successfully defeats the Russian invaders. In the EU, the topic of cannabis reform of both the medical and recreational kind is increasingly visible on the national political roadmaps of many countries this summer. Beyond Germany, Luxembourg and potentially Portugal may also move forward to enshrine recreational use this year. Switzerland, which is in Europe but outside of the EU trade alliance, is embarking on a recreational trial. France is in the middle of a medical trial. Greece and Italy are increasing medical cultivation.
2022 is a tipping-point year for the issue in Europe—much like 2012 was in the United States. The biggest difference, of course, is that there was no war within a day’s drive of either Colorado or Washington State.
Beyond the recreational cannabis question, however, the political impetus to legalize cannabis at least medically and for both PTSD and pain is becoming stronger across the region. Even Spain, one of the last holdouts in Europe on the medical cannabis reform front (although home to the original cannabis clubs), has indicated that medical use should probably be implemented on a federal level.
This political maneuvering is important in an environment where in the U.K., for example, chronic pain is still excluded from medical coverage by the National Health Service (NHS), and in Germany, where it is getting harder again to obtain insurance reimbursement for cannabis, including for both generalized chronic pain and other kinds of health conditions that can cause it.
Ukraine, in other words, may be the only country in the region in the middle of a terrible and violent ground war—but across the continent, the battle to legalize at least the medical use of cannabis has been given an extra credence as a result.
Photographs courtesy of Adobe Stock
Marguerite Arnold is an entrepreneur, consultant, and journalist located in Germany. She is also the author of two books about the cannabis industry.