Montmartre, the stretch of twisty cobblestoned streets sweeping up to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica and its commanding view of Paris, has been a favorite on both the tourist and bohemian circuits for generations. If you were ever herded through Europe’s second-most visited city by a guidebook-clutching friend or as part of an organized tour, you likely swung through Montmartre. If you visited sometime in the past year, as I did, you may have strolled past one of the few places where you can legally buy cannabis in France, a country where high-THC cannabis is strictly prohibited and legalization is still a distant dream.
From the outside, Deli-Hemp vaguely resembles a hip cafe serving fourth-wave coffee. Inside, there’s the minimalist’s aesthetic of egg-white walls and unpainted wood. But then there are the trimmed buds — unmistakably cannabis — in deep greens and purples, displayed underneath glass bells on a row of wall-mounted, bare-wood shelves. When I lift a bell to take a sniff, out wafts a wave of familiar terpenes: pine, lemon, and, from the bud labeled Tangie, sweet-and-sour tropical citrus. Oil extracted from plants like these are also available by the bottle, or, for a couple of euro, dropped into an espresso pulled from the machine behind the counter.
Whether this is all legal, exactly, depends on whom you ask — if you ask, say, French authorities in certain cities where such establishments have had their wares seized, the answer is a firm non. But on this weekday afternoon in Paris, Deli-Hemp’s door is wide open and nobody seems the least bit concerned.
Recreational cannabis is still banned in Europe and what medical marijuana there is on the continent and in the U.K. is heavily restricted. Yet finding, buying and consuming weed in Europe is an activity that’s slowly becoming increasingly familiar — and increasingly comfortable.
Unlike the cannabis found in one of Barcelona’s hundred-plus underground clubs that would compete for top-shelf status in California, the cannabis sold at Deli-Hemp and a handful of other weed boutiques in France is the kind you can buy in the United States, in all 50 states, not only in dispensaries but in smoke shops, bookstores, online and at pop-ups in Brooklyn. That is to say, Deli-Hemp and a few other brave merchants in France are selling hemp: cannabis sativa with 0.2% or less THC, the legal threshold separating legal hemp and outlaw cannabis in the European Union. (They also sell it, with a straight face, with an admonishment printed on the label that these very smokable buds are not for smoking.)
And though wary English merchants yanked CBD flower from their shelves despite great strides in public acceptance and legal protection for medical cannabis in the past year, other CBD products such as oils and salves are in shops in both high streets and low corners in the United Kingdom.
Fueled by the entrepreneurial excitement spilling over from the United States (as well as a few very high-profile cases of children with “untreatable” epilepsy treated with CBD oil), the CBD craze has landed in Europe. Just how long it will last — and in what form — nobody can say for certain.
“The main challenge right now for entrepreneurs is the lack of specific and coherent regulation about hemp-derived contained CBD products,” said Laurene Tran, a former lecturer at Paris’s elite university Sciences Po and executive director of ACTIVE, a trade association supporting both the hemp and medical cannabis trades in Europe.
“It’s all a bit chaotic,” said Steve Moore, the London-based political operative enjoying a second act as a drug-policy reform maven and the “strategic council” at the U.K.’s still-new Centre for Medicinal Cannabis. “It’s getting a bit too big, a bit too exuberant. There are products of a very dubious provenance and quality, nobody knows what’s in them. Someone’s going to have to impose some regulations, I think.”
Both hemp activism and related commercial activity have long histories in Europe. Industrial hemp grown on the continent has been legally cultivated and exported as seed and fiber to the United States throughout the drug prohibition era. In Glastonbury, the famous festival town in the heart of England, hemp products have been for sale, openly, on the main merchant strip since the 1990s, where a puckish 52-year-old whose legal name is Free Cannabis also sells CBD flower.
But the CBD craze means awareness and demand on a level never before seen — and with it, a flood of competing information and bold products making bolder claims. Amid the accompanying confusion and ambiguity that comes with quick shifts in the law and how it is enforced, mixed signals are coming fast and steady.
In summer 2019, the British Home Office — the national ministry charged with enforcing drug laws — ordered a company to eradicate £200,000 worth of hemp destined for CBD oil extraction, despite the fact that the company had been in business since 2016 and would have paid £480,000 in taxes on millions’ worth of revenue from that crop. Then, a month later, that same office authorized an upstart hemp farm in Jersey to grow the same plant for the exact same purpose.
“This is all very strange,” said penalized hemp farmer Patrick Gilette, who estimated his company, Hempen, had racked up more than £2.4 million worth of sales, in an interview with the Guardian. “No one in the Home Office up until the end of last year ever said to us: ‘Stop what you are doing, this is illegal.’ They allowed us to get started and then after a perfect year — wet spring and hot summer — we had a bumper crop which they made us destroy last Tuesday. It doesn’t make sense.”
European merchants have also demonstrated the same lack of concern for product safety and efficacy seen among CBD-sellers in the United States. The U.K.’s Centre for Medicinal Cannabis, a set up by pro-drug policy reform veterans of the pre-Brexit Conservative government, recently tested a random assortment of CBD products available for sale in the country and found that many contained THC, and many more had levels of CBD well out of line with the figure printed on the label.
Over in France, the government and local police departments have inconsistently applied the country’s 0.2% THC limit, claiming that CBD products for sale in retail outlets could not contain any THC at all. However, Deli-Hemp and a handful of other French shops still remained in business in July, when Cannabis Now visited, and still were as of this fall.
After that, or later in 2020, well, who can say? European drug-reform activists and entrepreneurs are pushing their respective governments to (for once) follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s lead. It was Trump who signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which put in place a framework for building consistent regulations around hemp and CBD. But even then, uncertainty and ambiguity remains, as regulators including the FDA have still been slow to keep up with the pace of the market.
Outposts like Deli-Hemp and a growing number of companies in the United Kingdom are a gamble that clarifying laws will pass and explicitly allow for hemp production and CBD consumption. And, even if those laws don’t pass, there appears to be enough public interest to keep a business afloat before the gendarmes decide they’ve had enough.
The French merchants followed the example set by retailers in Switzerland and in Italy, countries where strict interpretations of drug-control laws that did not mention CBD or provided THC limits led to “cannabis cafés” selling CBD flower. So far, their survival appears due to a mixture of general ignorance and confusion about CBD, as well as laissez-faire enforcement. There doesn’t appear to be any public demand for a crackdown.
The same is true in the U.K. In Britain, CBD appears to inhabit a sort of ambiguous space between a “novel food” and an off-license, un-prescribed medicine. Merchants import either hemp or hemp products from abroad and add them to products for a significant markup — and for now, there isn’t sufficient interest or resources to stop it.
“Enforcement is tough,” said Moore. If the Home Office suddenly decided that all CBD products had to go, such an edict would be unenforceable.
In this, European CBD is strikingly similar to its American cousin, down to the public uncertainty about whether any of this actually does anything or if it’s just a hype-fueled wellness fad, like crystals or whatever Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop are selling this week.
I pondered this with the CBD-infused coffee slowly pulsing rather than cranking through my veins and brain. Climbing the steps towards Sacre-Coeur, elbowing through the crowds and street artists, I felt — well, just fine. The smoke wasn’t quite as pleasant. The buds in the three-gram can I bought for €30 were dry, a little harsh, and lacked the sharp terpenes the display buds radiated. But even so, there I was buying and smoking CBD flower in Paris, something that nobody could do all that long ago. At this rate, can Barcelona-style THC cannabis clubs be far behind?
TELL US, have you seen CBD stores while traveling abroad?
Originally published in Issue 40 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE