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How to Export Medical Cannabis


At the end of 2019, I wrote an article titled How to export medical cannabis internationally. This position played a lot with journalists and also with potential customers. We ended up with a few fascinating projects, one of which required registration under the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (didn’t see that one coming) and another one that’s still going today (after a lot of hiccups). Of course our international trade team does a lot of the heavy lifting on these issues, kicking off the work we’re doing on importing and exporting hemp.

Most of the stuff we write on this blog ends up steaming, but I still get the occasional request referencing that old “how to” article. So, I think it’s time for a refresh. This is also a very good time for this, as two key developments have reinvigorated this space over the past few years.

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

Second, and in connection with the development of this treaty, many countries have reviewed their approaches to medical cannabis, including import and export. This activity includes everything from government decrees that will create a cannabis import/export market (see: France), the adoption of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards under an existing trade regime (see: Australia). Other countries go 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 longer. Here are the steps:

  1. Start in a country with federal laws allowing the production of medical cannabis (this listing is as good as any);
  2. Start in a country with a progressive national health department and export authority;
  3. Find a country that allows imports of medical cannabis;
  4. Enter into an agreement with a buyer;
  5. Acquire import and export permit; and
  6. Dispatch.

In the 2019 article, I observed that exports will always be demand-driven. And demand isn’t just about quantity; the product categories are also decisive. To date, we have seen imports/exports of medical cannabis in categories such as whole flower, oil, topicals and capsules. Some of this cannabis was exported for research purposes, but the majority appears to have been shipped for medical purposes. This is usually because importing countries allow the use of marijuana or cannabis for medical purposes, but do not allow production or tolerate home cultivation.

The medical cannabis import/export market is still very new. This means that apart from the legal complexities, there are practical matters to be resolved. Foremost among these are quality standards. Although GMP compliance is required to ship medical cannabis to the EU, for example, I have observed previously that there are no quality standards (this is true for cannabis of any type; was again in the news this week). Another critical issue is supply chain integrity. Finally, one must navigate a thicket of political and policy considerations, extending to social responsibility and end-user frameworks.

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



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