Hemp Growing, CBD and Medical Marijuana in the Countries of Ex-Yugoslavia

Countries of Southeast Europe have a long history of hemp cultivation. In 1949, ex- Yugoslavia was the third biggest hemp producer in the world, growing a total of 80.000 ha hemp crops. With a breakup of ex-Yugoslavia, the former federal republics – and now independent states – have different laws concerning hemp growing, CBD, and medical cannabis. Medical marijuana is legal in Croatia and North Macedonia, and some other countries might consider the same in the near future.

Cannabis laws in Slovenia

Before the 2nd World War, about 160 ha of the agricultural area in Slovenia was cultivated with hemp. Then it quickly began to decline, and at the end of the 1970s, it was no longer cultivated. Revitalization of industrial hemp in Slovenia with field experiments started in 2000 when hemp was used only for seed production, and hemp fibres were used only as buildings insulation.

In 2004, Slovenia joined the EU and allowed hemp cultivation for food and industrial purposes. Growing hemp is regulated by the Drugs Production and Trafficking Act, with the Ministry of Agriculture providing permits. Varieties from the EU list are allowed and should not exceed 0.2% THC. The regulations allow the classic production from seeds, and the fields need to have at least 10 acres for conventional farmers, or 1 are for organic growers. The hemp areas have stabilized at around 300 ha per year throughout Slovenia.

At the moment, the production and processing of cannabis into CBD in Slovenia is at a standstill, says Dejan Rengeo, an expert associate at the International Institute for Cannabinoids (ICANNA).

“As for the extraction and production of CBD and other cannabinoids, things got complicated in 2019 when inspections began to exercise stricter controls and refer to novel food. At that time, many small growers and processors were given a ban on production. Later, some revived production and are now somewhere in the gray zone. The situation is best for those who make products from imported raw materials. Despite many promises and attempts, matters are not settled because of a group of influential people in the Ministry of Health who are strongly opposed to any cannabis liberalization. They themselves do not know why, they generally reject all arguments,” he explained.

Gorazd Reberšak, vice-president of CANNAGIZ, an economic interest group in support of cannabis, outlined the shortcomings of the present legislative model.

“Hemp can only be grown, while propagation is not allowed in any sense. We need to buy seeds from the EU variety list, and we are fighting against that. The Austrians do not have that obligation anymore, so we can not compete with them,” he said.

In 2013, the Slovenian government reclassified cannabinoids as Class II illegal drugs. In 2018, the Pirate Party of Slovenia put a parliament proposal to legalize cannabis for all uses, but it didn’t pass. As a reason for refusing the proposal, the Slovenian government stated that it is contrary to the international obligations undertaken by Slovenia as a party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Medical cannabis is still not legal in Slovenia, but certain cannabinoid drugs, such as Sativex and Marinol, are approved for patients’ use. In theory, it is possible to obtain a doctor’s prescription for cannabis-based medicines. However, there are only a few doctors with adequate knowledge and willing to provide such prescriptions.

Cannabis laws in Croatia

Before the 2nd World War, hemp cultivation spread on 11.500 ha of Croatian territory. From the 60s until the 90s, production was in constant decline and was completely shut down in 1995.

In 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture set a Regulation stating Cannabis sativa L. with THC content less than 0,2% is allowed to be grown exclusively for fiber production, production of seed for animal feed, and seed reproduction. In reality, at the time, hemp cultivation was impossible because the sub-legal act (Ordinance of the Conditions for Growing Hemp and Poppy) instructed that varieties allowed for production had to be tested for THC content before the listing on the Croatian agricultural plants’ variety list. These tests were never conducted for any variety.

The sub-legal act was amended in 2012, and according to the new rules EU variety list was accepted. The growers were allowed to produce hemp only for food or feed.

In March 2013, the Croatian government issued a custom regulation act that included regulations for Cannabis sativa and cannabis resin in line with the UN 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The act applies to the plant, parts of the plant, or any other ingredients as resins, extracts, or tinctures. In July 2013, Croatia joined the EU as its 28th member state.

The major shift in legislation came in 2019 when the Croatian parliament amended the Drugs Abuse Prevention Act and enabled companies to grow cannabis for medical purposes. The regulative body for this purpose is the Ministry of Health. The Agency for medicinal products and medical devices should start providing licenses for the companies that want to grow cannabis for medical purposes. However, the protocol for these licenses is still not published.

In the same bill, hemp is defined as a plant with a THC content of 0,2% and less, with its varieties listed in the EU plant variety catalog. The law clearly states that hemp is not among plants listed in the Croatian List of Drugs, Psychotropic Substances, and Plants from Which Drugs Can Be Extracted, and Precursors. So, even before the ruling of the European Court in the Kannavape case, and the European Commission’s recognition that CBD is not a narcotic, Cannabis Sativa L. was erased from the list of narcotic drugs in this country. Since then, hemp and its products are no longer under the authority of the Croatian Ministry of Health, but the Ministry of Agriculture. They can be legally cultivated, processed, and traded like any other agricultural commodity.

Also, cannabis production is no longer limited to industrial purposes. Article 13 of the new Drugs Abuse Prevention Act states it can be produced for medical purposes with the licenses from the Ministry of Health and the Agency for medicinal products and medical devices.

Production for industrial purposes is also made much easier with a new regulation from the Ministry of Agriculture – 15 days before planting, interested companies or individuals only need to register on-line. The whole hemp plant is legal in the construction, textile, food and cosmetic industry, paper industry, automotive industry, and for the production of biofuels.

In 2020, there were about 80 hemp producers in Croatia who grew it on about 2.500 ha.

According to Sasha Bajilo, a long-time activist, member of the Ministry of Health Regulatory Commission for Medical Cannabis, and a founder of Ilesol Pharmaceuticals, Croatian laws are best in the EU.

“The Court of Justice of the European Union decision is completely in line with Croatian law. In fact, with this ruling, the harmonization of the EU and Croatian laws is on its way. In Croatia, we expect the adoption of a regulation on the cultivation of cannabis (not hemp) for medical purposes soon. Under the 2019 Drug Abuse Prevention Act, only companies that have a license to manufacture medicines will be able to engage in this activity.”, says Bajilo.

As he points out, biomass production and biomass processing into CBD products are on the rise in Croatia. “There are a significant number of large farmers who have many years of experience and technology for the production of top-quality biomass. There are currently several smaller manufacturers of CBD oils and cosmetics in Croatia. We are the largest and only manufacturer of ingredients, finished products, and cosmetics. We expect the validation of Novel Food documentation within a month in the UK (03/31) and registration in the EU in 2022,” he said.

Cannabis laws in Bosna and Herzegovina

Since 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina is constituted by two entities – The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska.

In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, hemp growing is only allowed for fiber and animal feed seed production, and further propagation and seed processing. It is regulated by the Act on Prevention and Suppression of Narcotic Drug Abuse, adopted in 2006. According to that bill, cultivation is allowed with a license issued by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations. The license can be issued if an individual or a company has a contract with a buyer, or is at the same time registered as a company that purchases and trades with hemp.

In Republika Srpska, hemp growing is regulated by the Narcotic Drugs Production and Trade Act from 2003, amended in 2004. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management is issuing licenses for hemp cultivation. The land has to be at least 1 ha in size. In January 2021, a new regulation from the Ministry of Agriculture came into effect, bringing more flexibility to seed import. Since 2018, there were more than a dozen licenses issued in Republika Srpska, but to this date, there are no hemp crops. The THC limit is 0.2%.

The main problem in BiH related to the cultivation of industrial hemp is the inconsistency of legal regulations and regulations between the two entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of BiH, explains Nemanja Bursać, agricultural consultant.

“So far, we have had a situation where it was allowed to grow industrial hemp and to process the leaves and seeds of industrial hemp (not the flower), but it was not possible to import industrial hemp seeds. In January 2021, at the level of Republika Srpska, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management adopted a new regulation, which should enable a more manageable establishment of industrial hemp production. In the context of cultivation and competitiveness of BiH producers, a big problem is the industrial hemp variety list, which contains eight varieties of industrial hemp, and these are mostly obsolete. Also, I believe that the greatest added value comes from flower processing. The fact that the processing of industrial hemp flowers is prohibited in BiH means that the producers from BiH can hardly compete with producers from countries where the processing of industrial hemp flowers is allowed.,” he said.

Medical cannabis is illegal in both entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, recent statements from the members of parliament and local representatives in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina indicate there is no opposition to the legalization.

Cannabis laws in Serbia: Hemp Growing, CBD and Medical Marijuana

Between the two world wars, there were around 30 large and 10 smaller hemp processing factories in Serbia. Hemp was grown in the vicinity of Leskovac and Vranje, Bujanovac, Aleksinac and Kruševac. For export, it was grown in Bačka, Srijem and Vranjska Banja region. Today, there are around 1.500 ha hemp crops in Serbia.

Hemp growing is regulated by the Act on Psychoactive Controlled Substances adopted in 2010 and amended in 2018. It is legal to grow the varieties of hemp listed in the Register of Recognized Varieties of Agricultural Plants. Those are Novosadska konoplja, Fedora 17, Helena, Marina, and Monoica. However, only Fedora 17, Helena, and Monoica are available in Serbia. Unlike other countries in the region, which still hold to 0.2% THC limit, Serbia allows up to 0.3% THC in hemp plants. The Ministry of Agriculture issues permits according to regulation from 2013, and they can be obtained for fiber production, production of seeds for animal nutrition, further propagation, processing, testing of seed quality, and its trade.

In 2019, the Commission for Psychoactive Controlled Substances, a government advisory body, listed CBD as a substance that can cause pharmacological addiction. However, this was only in a form of stand, and it’s not likely that CBD will be listed as a psychoactive controlled substance in Serbia. For the moment, the cultivation of hemp for this purpose stays in a grey zone, as well as the extraction of CBD oil.

“Pursuant to Serbian legislation, CBD is not a psychoactive substance and is not on the list of psychoactive controlled substances. On the other hand, CBD itself is not regulated as such, which complicates the conditions for placing it on the market. For example, a CBD product cannot be imported under its tariff number, but CBD products are imported under the tariff numbers of the products that contain CBD, such as cosmetics or supplements, as long as the content of THC is lower than 0,3% and the product itself satisfies the conditions for placing it on the market. As of now, there is no legislation confirming that it is allowed to manufacture and market products that contain CBD, and the bylaws do not state that it is possible to use industrial hemp for the purposes of manufacturing products with CBD,” explains Siniša Čolević, Attorney at Law and Partner at Law Office Stanivuković and Partners.

Medical marijuana is illegal in Serbia, with recent cases of arrests for possession.

Cannabis laws in Montenegro

CBD in Montenegro is legal with a 0.2% THC threshold. Hemp growing is regulated by the Drug Abuse Prevention Act from 2011, amended in 2014. Growing hemp is allowed for industrial and food purposes if the individual or a company has a contract for the full yield purchase four months after the harvest. Following this regulation, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a protocol for license issuing.

The exemption is when hemp is grown for scientific purposes. In that case, the company doesn’t need a license from the Ministry of Agriculture. Instead, it needs to register the land for cultivation for scientific purposes.

Recently, there were some legal problems when the analysis for the same product tested twice in three months showed 0,016% THC and 0.33% THC content.

Medical cannabis in Montenegro can be obtained through a specially licensed company, which unfortunately doesn’t exist. The initiative for the legalization of marihuana for medical and recreational purposes Legalizuj.me so far collected 5.000 signatures of support, which is enough for the letter to the government.

“Our vision of legalization is to advance growing and processing cannabis, and thus to advance agriculture and industry, with state subsidies that would be given to the farmers, so that they can purchase materials and tools, while the state would benefit from collecting taxes on the sale of cannabis.”, says Nikola Banović, the executive director of Legalizuj.me.

“Also, we want every consumer to be able to buy up to 40gr per month in coffee shops using ID card so that there is no abuse. The consumption would be limited to the places of residence, coffee shops, and certain tourist sites, to protect minors from contact with cannabis before the age of eighteen. We see cannabis as a renewable resource that will completely reform the economy, improve medicine and reduce the crime rate in Montenegro.”, says Banović, who expects a rational and adequate reaction from the government bodies.

Hemp Growing, CBD and Medical Marijuana: Cannabis laws in North Macedonia

In North Macedonia, hemp cannot currently be legally cultivated or processed for any purpose. The use of non-viable hemp seeds is not restricted.

On the other hand, medical cannabis is legal since 2016, when the Act on Control of Narcotic Drugs and Psychoactive Substances was amended. The decision had no political opposition and 70 percent support in public polls. The illegal production and sale of marijuana remain punishable by sentences of one to ten years in prison.

In an interview for Deutsche Welle in December 2020, prime minister Zoran Zaev announced that his government plans to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. Capital Skopje and Ohrid area will transform into cannabis tourism spots and it would boost the economy, as he pointed out.

He introduced a model in which a government agency would enable each citizen to grow up to three plants on their own, or through companies that would do the growing instead. So far, the government issued 59 licenses, he said.

“It is not right for someone to go to prison because he used half a gram of natural cannabis for personal use, at a time when everywhere in the world this herb is becoming legal for both medical and economic activities. This work is about to start in 2021 when we expect the parliament to debate. There will be a debate on the overall legalization by the end of June 2021, we will debate beforehand, we will hear the voice of the citizens, and then the parliament will act accordingly to the directions received from the citizens,” said Zaev at the presentation of the government plan “Action 21 – European standards at home”.

In 2018, the Canadian International Cannabis Corp. (ICC) agreed to acquire 100 percent of Balkan Cannabis Corp. which holds North Macedonian medical cannabis cultivation and extraction licenses, as well as Bulgarian medical cannabis and hemp cultivation licenses.

Having in mind the long tradition of this region, new developments on a global level could bring a renaissance in hemp growing, processing, and trade. Medical cannabis will most certainly gain legal access to the patients in some of the Balkan countries. Eventually, the legalization for recreational purposes is becoming more and more likely.

Reviewed by Sasha Bajilo, founder of ILESOL Pharmaceuticals, an industrial scale producer of CBD products and formulations. Expert on Hemp/Cannabis policy, member of the Croatian Ministry of Health regulatory commission for medical cannabis.