Cannabis Cash: Where Is Finland’s Tax High?

Main political party youth groups agree on the need for discussion over drugs policy - but stop short of calling for legalisation.

File picture of cannabis leaves and €50 banknotes / Credit: iStock

Finland is missing out on tens of millions of euros in tax revenues each year from legal cannabis sales, but it’s a topic the country’s main political parliamentary groups aren’t about to tackle any time soon.

Instead, discussions about drugs policy have been lead by the youth wings of political parties, who are in broad agreement about the next steps they want to see for cannabis in Finland.

“It’s quite easy to avoid talking about drug policy. It’s easy to say ‘I don’t want marijuana  to be legalised’. But it’s more difficult to have a full discussion about it” says Suvi Mäkeläinen, the recently elected Chair of Centre Party Youth.

“I think when young people get more empowered, maybe we will discuss it more” she adds.

The Centre Party Youth – along with their National Coalition Party, Social Democrats, Green League and Left Alliance counterparts – have had similar internal discussions on decriminalising cannabis for personal use. It’s a rare moment of social policy consensus across the political spectrum.

“I think it has something to do with global impact” says Henrik Vuornos, National Coalition Party Youth Chairperson.

“Worldwide, using cannabis is more popular with the youngsters than the older people and I think younger people are also more connected around the world. People are looking at websites and reading magazines, following USA politics where almost half of the states have legalised cannabis” he says.

The US Example

The steps that individual US states have taken to decriminalise or legalise cannabis consumption stand out as an example where America has become more socially progressive than Europe.

California was the first state to introduce legal medical marijuana almost 22 years ago – personal possession had been reduced to a misdemeanor as far back as the mid-1970s – and in 2016 it became legal to use marijuana for recreational reasons, and grow some plants at home.

Colorado has similar laws about cannabis possession and use to California, and as Denver-based journalist and writer Donna Bryson puts it “what was once counter culture is now commercial”.

“People coming to Colorado looking for a pot Soddom and Gomorrah, and people do, may be disappointed to find out how normal it all looks. Recreational pot shops are located in suburban strip malls. You can pick up your edibles after dropping off your dry cleaning” she explains.

Across America, the legalisation of marijuana is a social experiment with implications that won’t be clear for decades, and it’s being driven by profits. States are enjoying a tax boost from cannabis sales.

In the Pacific North West, the state of Oregon has a slightly smaller population than Finland. In the first 20 months since legalising cannabis sales, the state collected the equivalent of €108 million in taxes.

At the end of 2017, Oregon distributed some of that tax income to good causes, youth groups and charities in much the same way Ray gaming machine money in Finland is distributed.

Importantly, 20% of Oregon’s cannabis tax income also went to mental health, drug and alcohol abuse charities.

Cannabis Concerns vs Realities 

The main issue the political party youth groups agree on is decriminalising possession of cannabis for personal use. Beyond that, other views begin to diverge.

“To be honest, we are also saying that growing for personal use should be allowed as well” says Sameli Sivonen, Deputy Chair of the Green League Youth Group.

“In Finland all the talk that has something to do with recreational use of drugs is very limited. I think we have a bit of a traumatized relationship with alcohol and that reflects on how we talk about other drugs as well” Sivonen says.

Some common arguments against legalising cannabis revolve around whether it encourages people to try other drugs, increases criminal activity or makes it easy for younger teens to start smoking marijuana. Even political groups that want to decriminalise cannabis in Finland don’t want to legalise it.

“We decided in our conference that we don’t want to legalise marijuana because we think it would make it easier to use it, and maybe if it remains illegal, then the bar is higher to trying it for the first time” says the Centre Party’s Suvi Mäkeläinen.

Those seems like reasonable arguments to lawmakers, but there is enough data coming in from academic and government studies in the USA, to arrive at some early conclusions which Finnish politicians might have to consider.

A study in January this year found that violent crime dropped sharply in states bordering Mexico that made it legal to grow your own marijuana for medical use. Crimes which fell included robberies, murders and aggravated assaults.

A year ago US Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggested there was a link between marijuana legalisation and violent crime. Colorado certainly saw a rise in all sorts of crime since marijuana was legalised, but police say they can’t actually link this to cannabis consumption.

A 2017 Harvard University study found cannabis legalisation had little impact positive or negative on crime rates, alcohol or other drug use.

In Colorado, a federal study at the end of last year found that the number of teens trying marijuana had dropped, due in part to tighter control at point of sale – meaning they would have to show identification that proves they’re old enough to buy it from a pot shop.

The same study found that teen use of alcohol, heroin and tobacco had also fallen dramatically since Colorado opened up the market for recreational marijuana in 2014.

“Pot businesses are run by military veterans, event planners, even former teachers […] ‘Potrepreneurs’ are way ahead of regulators and researchers” says Donna Bryson in Denver.

“So far, neither the worst fears nor the rosiest scenarios have been realised. The big fears included drug use becoming normalised in the eyes of impressionable young people, and criminal cartels taking over the business. The rosy scenarios included tax money from marijuana being a silver bulled for problems like underfunded schools and poor roads” Bryson explains.

Medical Marijuana In Finland

It’s not impossible to be prescribed marijuana in Finland for medical reasons. But it is very difficult and only used in very specific circumstances.

“The herbal medicinal product Sativex is the only authorised medicinal product in Finland produced from Cannabis sativa” says Dr Esa Heinonen, Director of Medicinal Products Assessment at FIMEA, the Finnish Medicines Agency.

Sativex can be given to adults with specific multiple sclerosis symptoms, and has to initially be prescribed by a neurology specialist. The active ingredients in the product come from two specially cultivated cannabis strains.

In Finnish terms though, one of the key limiting factors for prescribing this drug – or any other drug containing cannabis which might go to FIMEA for assessment – is that the costs are not covered by KELA public health insurance.

Without KELA on board, and without any particular political will, the situation with medical marijuana is unlikely to change any time soon.

But that’s not the case in other parts of Europe. Germany legalised medical marijuana in March 2017, and although in theory patients can obtain it over the country at pharmacies, there are often problems for people with prescriptions, from trying to find a pharmacist willing to stock cannabis; to dealing with insurance companies over reimbursement.

“We are willing to increase the use of medical marijuana, maybe that could be easier in the future when doctors know what they are doing and when it is supervised, it should be fine” says Suvi Mäkeläinen from the Centre Party Youth Group.

NCP’s Henrik Vuornos strikes a more pragmatic note.

“In public discussions every time somebody has started to talk about legalising drugs, there has been a total backlash to that. And I think that most politicians are playing it quite safe. It’s easier to keep the current system than try something new”.