Last week, Greece announced a new law permitting the use of medical cannabis. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stated that Greek doctors will soon be able to prescribe cannabis for various medical purposes.
It is still unclear whether, like their German or Canadian cannabis counterparts, Greek patients will be able to choose from buds, extracts, and finished medicine. Many of Europe’s medical marijuana patients are limited to finished medicinal products like Marinol as opposed to the wide variety of medicinal cannabis treatments available in other markets.
Two months ago, Health Minister Andreas Xanthos announced that medical cannabis preparations could be manufactured and packaged in Greece sometime in the future. The rules guiding the exact processes for manufacturing and processing pharmaceutical cannabis are still to be determined. If necessary, a development perspective for production, packaging, and marketing for Greece will be developed by the state, Xanthos emphasized.
Greece Was Once a Hashish Producer
Greece banned cannabis as early as 1890, almost a quarter of a century before cannabis’ first international ostracism during the Geneva Opium Conference. As Orthodox Greeks escaped from the Ottoman Empire during the independence war in the early nineteenth century, they attempted to bring their tradition of hashish consumption to the newly established Greece. In 1890, the import, sale, and consumption of cannabis in Greece were declared illegal due to “the direct threat it posed to society.”
The French adventurer and author Henry de Monfreid noted in his 1933 book Hashish: A Smuggler’s Tale that in 1915 Hashish was still top crop on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. Each farm maintained their own hash varieties, just as they crafted their own wines.
In 1932, the French lifestyle magazine “Voilà” commissioned writer Francis Carco (1886-1958) to write a travel report on prostitution and drugs in the Mediterranean region. On his tour, he visited Barcelona, Izmir, Istanbul, Beirut, Alexandria, and Cairo as well as Athens’ port of Piraeus. His report on the Greece begins: “I was with a police officer, and we walked along the cades of Piraeus on a dark blue evening, when I suddenly had the idea of visiting a Hashish café. I had been told that Hashish cafés are widespread in Greece. I even had some addresses. My companion smiled. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘that the cafés you mention are now closed. We are leading a merciless war.’”
Despite the early war on cannabis, Carco finally found a hash cafe in Piriäus with the aid of his police-guide. There he experienced “guitar sounds as if they were from another world.” A copy of Carco’s travel report can be found in the “Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum” in Barcelona today.
After the Second World War, the ban on cannabis was massively implemented, and according to the Narcotics Act law reform in 1987, Greece had the most rigorous rules surrounding cannabis within the European Union. A minor reform of the Greek Narcotics Act in 2013 eased penalties, but only slightly.
Today, consumption and possession of cannabis for personal needs are punishable by imprisonment of up to five months. Cannabis trading is still punishable by at least eight years’ imprisonment, with a fine of 50,000 up to 1,000,000 Euro.
But despite its massive repression, Greek cannabis cultivation could never be fully eradicated. In addition to the peninsula of Peloponnese, where the legendary Sativa-landrace “Greek Kalamata” originated, the island of Crete is known as Greece’s main cultivation area for cannabis. The mountainous region of the island became a stronghold of Mediterranean cannabis production during the civil war-like conditions in 2009 when narcotic agents faced armed local cannabis farmer’s Kalashnikov Rifles, Crete and the Peloponnese areas continue to make headlines for illegal grow busts.
Grow it Instead of Grexit
Greece is the most heavily indebted country in Europe and in recent years has faced national bankruptcy several times. The EU is constantly struggling to create new aids and demanding massive cuts in health and social budgets as a compensation for the financial support it provides Greece. The country’s economy, which is also carrying a large part of Mediterranean refugees, is still waiting for the essential economic boom needed to regain financial independence. If some conservative EU politicians had their way, Greece would be expelled from the eurozone for not being able to clear their debts.
Why not legalize cannabis? Agriculture is the second largest sector in the country, yet Greece hardly manages to meet the demand of its population. The export share of recent years was about 15 percent, while economists recommend producing up to 50 percent for export. In Greece, the sun is shining 300 days a year, while Canadian and Dutch producers of medical cannabis need an enormous amount of electricity. Unlike in the northern latitudes, the production of cannabis in Greece would be highly cost-effective thanks to the Mediterranean climate. Medical cannabis could be the beginning, and if Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark legalize recreational cannabis in a few years, the credit-issuing countries in the north could import medicinal and recreational outdoor cannabis, hashish, and extracts from Greece.
The governing left-wing political party Syriza had no problem with legal cannabis before the 2015 elections. They even signed a manifesto for a liberal drug policy and sent speakers to various “Legalize” events across the country. Syriza’s youth organization and its human rights committee also officially supported the Anti-Prohibition Festival, which was renamed Cannabis Protestival in 2015. Even Prime Minister Tsipras attended the Anti-Prohibition Festival before he was elected as prime minister.
But the party has no common concept of legalizing cannabis. Despite his call for cannabis decriminalization in 2011, Justice Minister Paraskevopoulos stated that the reformed law, which provided for imprisonment of up to five months for personal consumption and possession of small amounts in 2013, was satisfactory in terms of decriminalization.
Greek ENCOD (Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies) Spokesman Michalis Theodoropoulos responded to the government’s cannabis policy:
“Syriza is more an alliance than a party, consisting of neo-communists, radicals and moderate leftists. Prime Minister Tsipras’ former party Synaspismos, which is regarded as the largest predecessor of Syriza and the strongest force within the alliance, signed the ENCOD-Bulletin on Cannabis 2014. The moderate Communists within Syriza are considered as the second-largest fraction and are co-signatories of the Bulletin. But the post-communists in the Syriza are almost as strictly against cannabis as the former coalition partner of Syriza, ANEL.” Theodoropoulos considers ANEL to be a “right-wing and racist.”
Revive a Rich History
Greece would do well to remember its history. While the first hashish production in modern Europe existed in the 19th century on the Peloponnese, the healing properties of cannabis were well known to the doctors of ancient Greece. Dioscorides was the first Greek physician to describe “Kannabis” in his Materia Medica, “Kannabis is a plant with many possible applications […]. It has leaves like an ash, smells unpleasant (insect repellents), has long hollow stems, round seeds, which decrease the frequency of sexual intercourse after intake. Juicing in the fresh green plant, however, it is good for earaches.”