North Macedonia hopes that marijuana laws will become a & # 39; cannabis superpower & # 39;

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SKOPJE, North Macedonia – In a desolate industrial area of ​​this capital city, a cannabis grow house is being built that, when completed, will span 178,000 square feet, about the size of a Walmart supermarket. At full capacity, 17 tons of marijuana will be harvested annually, worth approximately $ 50 million. Among the planned deals is a US strain known as Herijuana, an acronym for "heroin,quot; and "marijuana," which has received some rhapsodic online criticism.

"I am impressed with the dome," wrote a fan on Leafly, a cannabis review site. "It also gave me the ability to rap."

Pharmacon, the company behind this operation, has everything you need for a prosperous and explosive business, including contracts with buyers in Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom. Construction here in Skopje has slowed down in recent days, as new coronavirus regulations restrict the number of people who can work in groups. But the building will soon be finished, and then Pharmacon will face a very different kind of impediment: the government.

"They told everyone that this is a great opportunity for a new industry," said Zlatko Keskovski, a former karate instructor-turned-cannabis entrepreneur who works for Pharmacon. "They said they would pass a good law in a few months. That was almost two years ago.

Medical marijuana exports have been legal here since 2016. But to date, the law only allows oils, extracts, and tinctures, which, measured by demand, are only 30 percent of the market. The other 70 percent is the smokable bud of the plant, known as "flower,quot; in the industry, the sale and export of which are still prohibited.

That was supposed to change in 2018, when government leaders announced that the export law would be amended. Foreign investors were invited. Additional licenses were issued. And there was a colorful comeback last August, when an American cannabis executive named Michael Straumietis, who is called "Big Mike," flew in his private plane, met with the country's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, and was enthusiastic about his 2.6 million Instagram followers.

"Let me tell you that this country has great potential,quot; he wrote, "and I am excited to be a part of making Macedonia one of Europe's first cannabis superpowers."

But the promised amendment has been caught in parliament amid corruption charges. The opposition party says the prime minister has targeted cannabis licenses to family and allies, part of a plan to capitalize on a new green fever.

The coronavirus will surely alter the timing of the eventual debate, because North Macedonia declared a 30-day state of emergency in mid-March and has more pressing matters to consider. But the fight sheds light on a bigger mystery: Why is Europe, a continent known for its progressive position on issues like healthcare and taxes, no longer having a thriving international cannabis trade?

It turns out that Europeans are conservative when it comes to cannabis, especially compared to the United States and Canada, where recreational marijuana laws have proliferated for years. Even in the Netherlands, where "coffee shops,quot; sell Citrus Haze, Choconesia and other varieties, cannabis has never been explicitly legalized. (Sale and consumption are tolerated in modest amounts.) Most European tokers today buy on the black market, and most of the supply comes from Afghanistan through Albania.

"There is a general fear that if we legalize medical marijuana, it will open the way for recreational marijuana," said Eoin Keenan, head of content for Prohibition Partners, a consultancy in London. "Europeans want a more regulated pharmaceutical model. Once we see it normalized, the conversations will advance to adult use. "

Demand for medical marijuana is strong in countries like Germany and the Czech Republic and is growing in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Keenan said. But to date, only two countries, Portugal and the Netherlands, allow the cultivation and export of medical marijuana. Recently, the slow pace of legalization caused Prohibition Partners to lower its forecast for the size of the European market. It will generate $ 2.5 billion in sales by 2024, the company predicted in its latest report, significantly below the $ 39 billion it forecast last year.

The country has had economic problems since 1991, the year it achieved independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia. A decade ago, the government attempted to fuel a tourism boom by spending $ 750 million on an ambitious makeover, building hundreds of statues in Skopje, including a 47-foot bronze in the city center called "warrior on horseback.

The results made Skopje "the new capital of kitsch," the city center mayor complained four years ago. The country's international branding efforts were complicated last year when it added "North,quot; to its name. It was an effort to appease the Greeks, who have long blocked the country's entry into NATO and the European Union, claiming that the original "Macedonia,quot; was part of Greece.

Now, the correct way to refer to all things Macedonian is so complicated that the government issued an official question-and-answer guide called "Simplified North Macedonia,quot;. One question was how to describe lunch with the president of the country.

"It would be correct to say that the President of North Macedonia served him a lunch of delicious Macedonian specialties, ”explains the guide. "It would not be correct to say that you had lunch with the President of North Macedonia."

The nuances of the medical cannabis market here are just a little bit easier to follow. In 2016, the fledgling business attracted Mr. Keskovski, a 50-year-old man who tells his life story in lively explosions between puffs of cigarettes. The former president of the Macedonian Kendo Federation, whose chops and kicks can be seen on YouTube, served as head of government security details in the 2000s.