How To Attack Greece’s Persistent Unemployment? Grow Some Weed

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The Greek economy has been hammered by 10 years of financial crisis, with unemployment topping 20 percent every year since 2012. Now, the government thinks pot growers can help.

A project to cultivate, process and export medical marijuana in Veroia, in the fertile north of the country, shows how Greece sees cannabis as a possible growth industry for the country, which has a warm, dry climate similar to California. New legislation could make the plan a reality as soon as next summer.

The Veroia site will create more than 2,000 jobs in the next two to three years, according to Georgios Zafeiris, chief executive officer at Golden Greece Holdings, the company responsible for coordinating the project’s group of 10 investors from countries including Canada, Kazakhstan, Poland and Israel. The first round of investment is seen at 400 million euros ($488 million), rising to more than 1.5 billion euros, and 80 percent of the jobs in areas like cultivation, trading and transport could go to Greeks.

“In Greece, we’re not looking at bringing people in from other areas that have cannabis experience,” said Michael Blady, one of the investors involved in the Veroia project. “We’re going to train as many people as we need and we’re going to start our own culture here,” he said in an interview in Athens.

Recreational Users

While initial plans will focus on extraction, processing and packaging of medical marijuana,  investors are also looking into an eventual recreational cannabis market in the country, provided the government opts for fuller legalization in the future, according to Blady.

Alexis Tsipras’s left-wing Syriza government, an enthusiastic backer of projects like Veroia, is set to propose legislation to allow pot cultivation projects to go forward as soon as the end of this month. The bill will be posted on the government’s website to allow the public to weigh in on legalizing cultivation and export of medical marijuana.

“There’s significant interest by the investor community to exploit the possibilities of the new legal framework for medicinal cannabis in Greece,” Agriculture Minister Evangelos Apostolou said in an interview. The government is willing to assist any investment project that could help boost the economy, the minister said.

In addition to persistently high unemployment, the economic crisis has also pummeled wages in Greece. Average monthly salaries, at just 586 euros, are among the lowest in the European Union, so any initiative promising higher-wage jobs is certain to resonate with the government. Top earners among employees in the legal cannabis industry can bring home $80,000-$100,000 a year, according to Blady.

The Veroia project’s backers say the positive effect on employment and wages provides a buffer against possible future changes in government. “Even when power does change and the political landscape shifts, it’s pretty hard to roll back on something that the general population sees as a benefit,” Blady said.