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Finnish entrepreneurs cultivate 'cannabis light' with eye to export

A less addictive, high-quality version of cannabis known as CBD could be a hit product for Finland on the expanding world market, developers say.

Hannu Hyvönen sekä Swiss Dream -lajikkeen emikukintoja Finolan hedekasvien pölytettävänä Kiuruvedellä.
Hannu Hyvönen from the Finnish firm Happusampo Image: Hannu Hyvönen

Finnish cannabis company Hamppusampo is carrying out experiments this summer to test various methods of cultivating a non-intoxicating strain of cannabis in fields and greenhouses. The aim is to develop cannabidiol products to sell in Finland and abroad – if Finnish legislation is changed to allow growing on a commercial scale.

Cannabidiol – also known as CBD or "cannabis light" – does not contain THC, the main psychoactive intoxicant in marijuana. The World Health Organisation declared that CBD is not harmful or addictive and may in fact be used to treat drug addiction.

Hamppusampo board member Hannu Hyvönen says he expects commercial cultivation of medicinal cannabis to begin in Finland within the next few years.

"We’ve gotten into the business because the hemp boom is growing quickly around the world. We are getting ready now so that when legal farming becomes possible in Finland, we’ll have the cultivation and processing skills and the right strains," he explains.

Under Finnish law it is basically legal to grow any type of hemp as long as it is not done with the intent of intoxication. Hamppusampo has a permit from the Food Safety Agency Evira to import the seeds it uses for research and product development purposes.

Forbes: 50-billion-euro industry by 2027

Hyvönen believes that hemp could be a new economic opportunity for the Finnish countryside. He says the firm is currently working with about a half a dozen small-scale growers along the coast, in the Oulu and Jyväskylä areas, and in the eastern municipalities of Lieksa and Rautavaara.

"Finland could brand its own strain of cannabis as high-quality, pure medicinal cannabis grown under the midnight sun. After all, it grows here naturally in outdoor conditions," he says. "In particular, there would be a big market for organically grown medicinal cannabis, both here in Finland and abroad."

Hyvönen notes that there are already several thousand hectares of farmland, primarily in the south-west, devoted to growing FINOLA. Developed in 1995 in Finland, FINOLA was the first industrial oilseed hemp to be registered in Canada and the EU. The oilseed hemp variety naturally has a high CBD content, Hyvönen says, and breeding efforts seek to bolster the CBD content even further.

Worldwide, legal cannabis is a rapidly-expanding sector. The business magazine Forbes predicts that consumers will be using nearly 50 billion euros worth of legal cannabis products annually by 2027. So far the market has been dominated by countries such as Canada, the US, Israel, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where legislation has been changed to decriminalise cannabis use.

Uphill battle on home turf

Entrepreneurs exploring this potential market in Finland face considerable red tape and sceptism from the authorities and the public, as they seek over-the-counter sales of cannabidiol in their home market.

In Switzerland, CBD is classed as a dietary supplement and can be bought at grocery shops by anyone aged 18 or over. Hamppusampo hopes that Finland will follow suit, but for the time being, the Finnish Medicines Agency Fimea classifies CBD as a prescription drug.

At present, Finnish pharmacies only sell Sativex, a prescription-only mouth spray containing CSD and THC that is used for treating painful spastic symptoms of multiple sclerosis, for example. The European Medicines Agency has given the same British pharmaceutical company a preliminary green light to develop a CBD-based drug for treating seizures associated with childhood-onset epilepsy.

Fimea's senior medical officer Eeva Sofia Leinonen points out that laws on medicines are much stricter than those on dietary supplements, and that Swiss legislation can be more flexible, as it is not a member of the European Union.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health also takes a dim view of the idea of non-prescription CBD sales. Ministerial adviser Elina Kotovirta says that deregulation would require extensive and costly studies to prove product safety.

Hamppusampo's Hyvönen says that one of the greatest obstacles facing the hemp business in Finland is the stigma associated with it. He says that while hundreds of farmers might be interested in cultivating it, only a few dozen actually go through with it.

"Even if the police come out and say that nothing illegal is going on, many Finns still think it is something to be ashamed of. There is a social stigma that is attached to hemp," he says.

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