How to Export Medical Cannabis

In late 2019 I wrote a post titled How to Export Medical Cannabis Internationally. That post got a lot of play with reporters and also prospective clients. We ended up with a couple of fascinating projects, one of which required registration under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (didn’t see that one coming) and another which remains ongoing today (after many fits and starts). Naturally, our international trade team does much of the heavy lifting on these matters, launching off work we do on the import and export of hemp.

Most things we write on this blog eventually turn to vapor, but I still receive the occasional inquiry referencing that old “how to” article. So, I figure it’s time for a refresh. It’s also a very good time for this, because two key developments have invigorated this space over the past few years.

First, in late 2020, the United Nations voted to remove medical cannabis from Schedule V (the strictest schedule) of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (“Single Convention”). Under international law, the medical and therapeutic potential of cannabis is now recognized and protected. The plant’s use for non-medical and non-scientific purposes remains illegal under the Single Convention, but the “medical use” recognition has massive implications for the import and export of medical cannabis.

Second, and related to this treaty development, a good number of countries have revisited their approaches to medical cannabis– including for import and export. This activity includes everything from governmental decrees which will create a cannabis import/export market (see: France), to adoption of good manufacturing practices (GMP) standards within an existing trade regime (see: Australia). Other countries are going even further, pushing into the recreational space (see: Germany, Mexico), but that’s a topic for another day.

So how do you ship medical cannabis internationally? It’s essentially the same protocol I covered in 2019. At this point, however, the list of potential destinations is much greater. Here are the steps:

  1. Start in a country with federal laws allowing medical cannabis production (this list is as good as any);
  2. Start in a country with a progressive national health department and exporting authority;
  3. Find a country that allows medical cannabis imports;
  4. Strike a deal with a buyer;
  5. Acquire import and export permits; and
  6. Ship it.

In the 2019 article, I observed that exports will always be driven by demand. And demand is not solely a matter of quantity; product categories are also dispositive. To date we have seen medical cannabis import/export in categories including whole flower, oil, topicals and capsules. Some of this cannabis has been exported for research purposes, but the majority seems to have shipped for medical application. This is generally because the importing countries allow medical marijuana or cannabis consumption, but do not license production and do not tolerate home grow.

The medical cannabis import/export market is still very new. This means that aside from the legal complexities, there are practical matters to work through. Foremost among these are quality standards. Although GMP adherence is required to ship medical cannabis to the E.U., for example, I observed previously that quality standards do not exist (this is true for cannabis of any type; it was in the news again this week). Another critical issue is supply chain integrity. Finally, a thicket of political and policy considerations must be navigated, extending to social responsibility and end-user frameworks.

In all, legal and political factors that once made medical cannabis export unthinkable are changing faster than seemed likely a few years back. This is mostly due to the Single Convention development. But the international distribution channels being built today will one day serve as conduits for the recreational cannabis trade as well. Until then, we will continue to monitor and report on developments in this fascinating space. Give us a call if you want to explore.