Grass roots: cannabis decriminalization campaign in Finland pushing towards public agenda
Source: Alan Whyte
Finland, the happiest country in the world, and the new EU president, had national elections. Did cannabis have a place in the political debate?
Medical cannabis has been available in its modern form in Finland since 2006 through a judicial decision made during a patient case which went all the way to the Supreme Administrative Court (Mikkonen 2016). Finland was the first Nordic/Baltic country to legally allow some forms of cannabinoid therapeutics, but instead of seizing the opportunity, the country has fallen short in harvesting the full medicinal potential of the plant.
By way of a bit of a background to this Nordic country and its relation to cannabis, Cannabis indicae herb (Intianhamppu or Indian hemp), was still listed in the Finnish Pharmacopeia in 1937 (Pharmacopoea Fennica 1937: 304-305) but removed from subsequent editions until Sativex® was approved around 2012. Bedrocan® products from the Dutch medical cannabis company are also available but only through a special permit.
The number of prescriptions for medical cannabis products are still low, despite rising from 57 in 2011 to 223 in 2014 (Eklund 2015) and 373 in 2017 (Malin 2019). The prescription rates fell in 2018 to 269 prescriptions, partly due to governmental authorities adopting a strict approach to the regulation of cannabis as medicine.
Cannabis is a difficult fit in the current medical model and the voice of patients is often forgotten in the debate. A recent article by Suomen Kuvalehti revealed that Finnish medical authorities and the Social Insurance Institution of Finland (Kela) have pressured doctors to discontinue prescriptions on the grounds that there is not sufficient evidence or clinical guidelines for using cannabis as medicine.
In addition to prescription holders, in 2017 there were an estimated 2000-5000 cannabis users in Finland who used cannabis for medical reasons without a prescription (Hakkarainen & Karjalainen 2017, p. 23). Cannabis also remains the most used “illegal drug”; according to a recent national survey 24 per cent have at least tried cannabis in their lifetime. 42 per cent of Finns think the use of cannabis should not have criminal penalties and 72 per cent think cannabis should be allowed at least for medical use.
The Finnish hemp industry and cultivation has old roots; the hemp variety FINOLA®, developed in Finland by USA researcher Jace Callaway was one of the first registered varieties in the EU and Canada. Other Finnish hemp companies have since sprouted (e.g. Hamppumaa, HamppuFarmi, HempRefine, HamppuSampo) and the first Finnish hemp expo was held in 2017 (Helsinki Hemp & Herb). Finnish hemp technology research is also under way; there are at least two research projects in Finland that have explored the industrial use of hemp.
In a joint project between the University of Eastern Finland and the City of Juankoski, hemp fiber is being developed in textiles, composites and filters. In addition, Turku University of Applied Sciences has a project that introduces technologies around hemp construction. Hemp companies, however, still suffer from stigma around the plant; for instance Facebook banned advertising by HempRefine, resulting in a 90 per cent decrease in sales.
One would think that in the era of entrepreneurship and 'activation', the development and support of new domestic industries would be in the forefront of the minds of politicians. But the results of the 2019 parliamentary elections in April showed that talking about cannabis and/or hemp did not bring votes to politicians.
The Finnish Pirate Party was the only political party calling for legal regulation of cannabis, with the Green Party and the Left Alliance mainly backing decriminalisation of personal use. The Green Party and Left Alliance managed to increase their numbers in the Finnish Parliament, while the Finnish Pirates did not get any candidates in. The winner of the elections for the first time in 20 years was the Social Democratic Party, although the right-wing Finns party was a close second.
As Finland is the EU president country for the latter half of the 2019, the Finnish election results do have European wide consequences as there are several informal meetings planned to take place in Helsinki, the country´s capital, including a EU Drug Coordinators meeting. Dealing with Brexit fallout and a recent call by European Parliament members to take medical cannabis seriously could potentially be major topics in those high-level meetings, even though most major parties in Finland have not shown willingness for cannabis policy reform.
Drug policy activism from the bottom up
While cannabis, or drug policy in general, did not become a hot topic in the 2019 elections, there is an on-going cannabis decriminalisation campaign taking place in Finland which includes an information campaign on the benefits of the plant, as well as a citizens' initiative to decriminalise personal use, possession and small scale cultivation of cannabis.
The campaign is implemented by the Finnish Cannabis Association, and it has so far recruited over 200 activists around the country as well as about 20 small businesses supporting it. The campaign included pre-election interviews with parliament candidates, and according to the campaign coordinator Tapani Karvinen,“the video interviews were a great way to make parliament candidates think about cannabis related issues, although we wished mainstream media would have done it for us.”
Amount of activists and their geographic distribution, and some of the businesses involved in the Finnish cannabis campaign. Source: www.kk2020.fi
A blog post by researchers at the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare at the beginning of 2018 calling for decriminalisation and a drug policy seminar organised by the Finnish Association for Humane Drug Policy in March 2019 have also been important openings for debating drug policy reform in Finland. Time will tell whether the Finnish cannabis decriminalisation campaign succeeds in collecting the 50 000 signatures needed to have the citizens´ initiative at least debated in the new parliament (at the time of writing they have over 21 000 signatures).
The most successful cannabis campaign so far managed to collect about half of the required signatures back in 2013. Of course, the current government has a chance to take a new stand on cannabis and other controlled substances on its own, but as in many countries, the change usually starts at the grassroots level.