Greece sees medicinal cannabis approved as a hen with golden eggs

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece on Monday issued the first licenses to private companies to grow medicinal cannabis in the country, as part of an attempt to tap into a booming market estimated at several billion euros.

Greece legalized cannabis for medical purposes last year and, in March, lifted the ban on its cultivation and production. Two licenses were issued on Monday and 12 more will be issued by the end of the year, the Ministry of Economy and Development said.

"The interest is enormous, especially from Canada and Israel ... some of them (potential investors) are huge," said Stergios Pitsiorlas, the Deputy Minister of the Economy, at a conference of hurry. "The legalization of cannabis for recreational use is not being studied," said Pitsiorlas in response to a question on the subject.

Pitsiorlas said that the first cannabis-based medicinal products should be on the market in about 12 to 18 months. The industry is mainly export-oriented, he said.

Thousands of patients in Greece are believed to use cannabis to fight serious medical problems, although the authorities do not have precise figures.

Several countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Denmark, already allow the prescription of medicinal cannabis and, in June, Canada became the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to fully legalize marijuana, ending a 90-year ban.

Under the Greek licensing system, medicinal cannabis products would be available by prescription. It would not be subsidized by state health insurance plans, said Minister of Health Andreas Xanthos.

The first authorized cannabis greenhouses will be located in Larisa, in central Greece, and in Corinth, in the Peloponnese. The 14 licenses should create more than 750 jobs and represent an investment of around 185 million euros (212,05 million dollars).

"Our message is that the country is open to investment," said Vassilis Kokkalis, Deputy Minister of Agriculture.