Cannabis policy: status and recent developments
Under international laws, cultivation, supply and possession of cannabis should be allowed only for ‘medical and scientific purposes’. In general, possession of the drug for personal use should be a crime, to deter use, and most countries make this punishable by imprisonment. In recent years, however, several jurisdictions have reduced their penalties for cannabis users, and some have permitted supply of the drug, allowing us to observe different control models and their consequences. Policy discussions are complicated by conflicting claims — decriminalisation or legalisation, medical or recreational use, policy success or failure — and this page aims to clarify some issues.
How is international cannabis policy developing?
While international laws oblige countries to impose criminal penalties for supply of drugs for non-medical purposes, some jurisdictions are creating exceptions. A system of cannabis supply has been illegal but tolerated in the Netherlands since the 1970s. ‘Medical marijuana’ was legalised by popular vote in California, in 1996, to treat symptoms including chronic pain. As there is no objective test for pain, public access to legal smokable cannabis became a formality. In Europe, since the late 1990s, decriminalisation and harm reduction policies had less negative impact than had been feared. The 2008 economic recession forced cuts to law enforcement budgets. In 2012, with medical cannabis available in 18 US states, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington approved systems of cannabis supply for recreational, not just medical, use. In the following year, the government of Uruguay passed a law to establish a system of supply via pharmacies and social clubs. More US states have legalised cannabis since then.
The terms ‘depenalisation’, ‘decriminalisation’ and ‘legalisation’ are often used in the drug control debate. These terms are briefly distinguished as follows.
Depenalisation: something remains a criminal offence, but is no longer punished, e.g. now the case may be closed.
Decriminalisation: an offence is reclassified from criminal to non-criminal. It remains an offence and may be punished by the police or other agencies, rather than a court.
Legalisation: there is a move from a prohibited behaviour (criminal or not) to a permitted behaviour. This is usually used to describe supply, rather than possession, of drugs.
The video ‘What is decriminalisation?’ provides more detailed explanation.
Policy in Europe
Cannabis policy models in Europe
While all EU Member States treat possession of cannabis for personal use as an offence, over one third do not allow prison as a penalty for minor offences (see map below). In many of the countries where the law allows imprisonment for such cannabis possession, national guidelines advise against it. More details are available at Penalties at a glance.
Figure: Penalties in laws: possibility of incarceration for possession of cannabis for personal use (minor offences)
Models of legal supply
No national government in Europe supports legalisation of cannabis sale for recreational use, and all countries have prison sentences for illegal supply. However, several draft laws have been proposed to national parliaments in the last few years, as well as some initiatives in regions or cities that were rejected at national level.
In the Netherlands, coffeeshops are outlets for the sale and (often on-site consumption) of cannabis, which started to appear in the 1970s. They are licensed by the municipality, and about two-thirds of Dutch municipalities do not allow them. There were 591 coffeeshops in 2014, with nearly one third in Amsterdam; numbers have been falling since 2000. Sale and personal possession is punishable by imprisonment under Dutch law, but coffeeshops are tolerated provided they adhere to strict criteria published in a directive of the public prosecutor. However, there is no toleration of production of the stock, creating a legal anomaly known in the Netherlands as the ‘back door problem’.
Cannabis social clubs
In a number of European countries, groups of users have formed ‘cannabis social clubs’. They claim that, in principle, if cultivation of one cannabis plant is tolerated for one person’s use, then 20 plants together might be tolerated for a club of 20 people. No national government in Europe accepts this, though some regions in Spain have attempted to pass regulations to limit the proliferation of such clubs. In 2015, the Spanish Supreme Court clearly stated that ‘organised, institutionalised and persistent cultivation and distribution of cannabis among an association open to new members is considered drug trafficking’.
Young Europeans’ views on drug control
One of the few comparable surveys of the strength of public opinion in the European Union is the Flash Eurobarometer, which interviews approximately 500 young people (aged 15–24) in each country. In 2011 and 2014, young people were asked for their opinions on drugs. More than half of the respondents were in favour of banning the sale of cannabis, rather than regulating it, but that proportion declined over the period, from 59 % to 53 %.
Policy outside Europe
Cannabis policy models outside Europe
Four basic models of legal cannabis production and supply are now operating.
1. Taxed, commercial supply. Many licensed growers supply many licensed retail outlets. This is the model in Colorado, Washington State, Alaska and Oregon.
2. Government supply. The government contracts a limited number of growers and controls supply through outlets. This is one of three models in Uruguay.
3. Permitting home grow (and giving small amounts). No tax, no sales outlets. This is the model in Washington DC, and one of three models in Uruguay.
4. Social clubs. A group of people grow cannabis in a collective and use it. No tax, no sales outlets. This one of three models in Uruguay.
The ‘Further reading’ section contains links to scientific reports on these models, where available. More details can be found in our Legal supply of cannabis: recent developments.
However, these are not the only models possible. The article ‘The 10 Ps of marijuana legalization’ outlines the many different possible choices when designing a model of legal cannabis supply.
Key characteristics of the US legal context:
- State laws can be passed by initiative or referendum, rather than parliamentary debate.
- ‘Medical’ cannabis had been legal and openly available for several years before recreational use was permitted.
- Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines is permitted.
- The right to ‘commercial freedom of speech’ limits the state’s ability to regulate advertising.
News updates on cannabis policy
You can find below objective information on cannabis policy changes outside the 30 EMCDDA countries (28 EU Member States, Turkey and Norway). The news is limited to key news events, such as when a major policy decision is taken or a significant report is released. The news updates below concentrate on policies where cannabis is clearly used for recreational purposes.
Following the legalisation of recreational cannabis in the US state of Colorado at the end of 2012, the state Senate mandated a report every two years on changes in cannabis use patterns, relevant scientific evidence and adverse health events. The second such report was presented to the Colorado state bodies on 30 January 2017. Some trends cover legalisation of medical cannabis from 2000, and its commercialisation from 2009 (see report for details).
This 300-page report is comprehensive, yet easy to read. Section 1 on changing use patterns contains analyses of five surveys of different populations (adults, adolescents etc.), and highlights ‘major findings’ for each. Section 2 outlines the results of a review of the scientific literature on relevant topics such as cancer, cardiovascular effects, driving, mental health effects, reproductive effects and unintentional exposures in children. It summarises evidence for each topic as substantial, moderate, limited, mixed or insufficient; it also provides clear ‘Public health statements’ and ‘Public health recommendations’. Section 3 contains analyses of data from the poison and drug centre and visits to hospitals in Colorado, again highlighting ‘major findings’ for each analysis.
Findings specific to Colorado included:
- According to two different surveys, 13 % or 17 % of adults used cannabis in the last month in 2015 (the highest national rate in the EU is 7 %, in France). This rose to 26 % of those aged 18–25. Last-month use has been rising since 2006. An estimated 6 % of adults in Colorado used cannabis daily (the highest national rate in the EU is 3 %, in Spain).
- About 38 % of students aged 14-18 have ever used cannabis (the highest national rate in the EU is 37 %, among 15- to 16-year-old students in Czech Republic), with nearly all usually smoking (87 %), rather than vaporising (5 %) or ingesting (2 %). In Colorado, rates of use in this age group fluctuate from 2005 to 2015. The rate of last month use is nearly identical to the US national average.
- There were 1688 ‘human cannabis exposure’ phone calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center (RMPDC) between 2000 and 2016. Call volume significantly increased following commercialisation of medical cannabis in 2009, then further following the legalisation of commercial recreational cannabis in 2014. The number of calls decreased slightly in 2016.
- There were 529 cannabis-related calls to the RMPDC between July 2014 and December 2016. Of these, 203 related to edible products and 199 to smokeable products. Regarding children aged 0–8, 60 calls related to edible products and 28 to smokeable products.
- From 2000 until September 2015, there were increasing trends in the rates of cannabis-related hospital visits and emergency department visits. The rate of hospital visits continued to climb in 2015, but the rate of emergency department visits fell slightly compared to 2014.
Link to report: https://www.colorado.gov/cdphe/marijuana-health-report
In Canada, on 13 December 2016 the government-appointed Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation published its final report, which had been delivered to the ministers of justice, health and public safety on 30 November.
The Task Force was appointed on 30 June 2016 to prepare the ground for fulfilment of Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2015 election promise to legalise, regulate and restrict access to cannabis. It comprised nine members and was headed by Anne McLellan, a lawyer who has held several key ministerial posts. It was guided by a government discussion paper which set out nine public policy objectives, including protecting young people and keeping money from organised crime. The Task Force established its own guiding principles: protection of public health and safety, compassion, fairness, collaboration, a commitment to evidence-informed policy, and flexibility. The 112-page report is based on five months of consultation (nearly 30 000 online submissions and over 300 written submissions). The recommendations aim for a public health approach while minimising unintended consequences. The Task Force prefers the scientific term cannabis to marijuana.
The government is not obliged to accept any recommendations of the Task Force’s report.
In Canada, an estimated 24 % of Canadians aged 15 to 24 years of age have used cannabis in the last year (only three out of 28 EU Member States have a similar or higher prevalence of use among the same age-group, and the EU average is 16 %). Personal possession of cannabis (up to 30 grams) is a criminal offence punishable by up to 6 months imprisonment. The legal system is federal, although provinces and territories may have their own variations of some laws, for example the age limit to purchase alcohol may be 18 or 19. Medical cannabis has been available since 1999. Over time the regulations have evolved from initially providing individual exemptions to enable patients to possess cannabis for their personal consumption for medical reasons, to a system of federal licensing that allows patients, with the support of their physicians, to obtain cannabis from one of 36 licensed producers, to cultivate their own cannabis or to designate someone to cultivate it on their behalf. It may be distributed by mail or courier. While not legal federally, some cannabis wellness clubs and ‘dispensary’ shops have existed for several years in some regions.
Key aspects of the recommendations include:
- A purchase age of 18 (or provincial alignment with that for alcohol)
- Plain packaging with THC and CBD levels clearly marked
- Prohibition of any product ‘appealing to children’ such as edible sweets
- Tax levels based on potency, to encourage development of lower-potency strains
- Government-regulated production, with seed-to-sale tracking system
- Provincial-regulated wholesale distribution (similar to the local government alcohol distribution networks) and retail; possible mail-order for remote communities
- Minimal co-location of cannabis sales with alcohol and tobacco products
- Designated places for social consumption but not with alcohol
- 30 g personal possession, four plants per private residence with max height 100 cm
- Penalties to be proportionate, non-criminal and criminal
- Further research to establish appropriate drug-driving limits
- A surveillance and monitoring system with programme evaluation every five years
It was not part of the mandate to make recommendations related to Canada’s international legal commitments.
In the United States, a system of ‘ballot initiatives’ allows citizens to directly propose and vote on draft laws in about 24 of the 50 states. Proposals for legal systems of cannabis cultivation and sale, for recreational use, had been rejected in California (2010), Oregon (2012) and Ohio (2015), and passed in Colorado and Washington State (2012), Alaska and Oregon (2014). The accepted systems are private commercial models of supply, and all built in some way on pre-existing commercial models of cultivation and sale of cannabis for medical use. Under these systems, although personal use was legalised quickly, it has usually taken 1 to 2 years for licensed shops to appear, due to the need for detailed implementing regulations and issuing of cultivation and sales licences. A law allowing home grow and consumption, but no sale, was passed in Washington DC in 2014.
While voting for the next US president on 8 November 2016, citizens also voted for commercial models of recreational cannabis supply in five states. Voters in Arizona rejected the proposal (Proposition 205) with 52 % against. For the other states, the results are as follows:
|Text of law||Proposition 64||Question 1||Question 4||Question 2|
|Votes in favour||56%||50.2 % (there may be a recount)||54%||54%|
|Limit to personal possession||28.5 g
4 g concentrate
5 g concentrate
3.5 g concentrate
|Limit to home grow per person||6 plants||6 plants, 12 in one residence; with ID tags on each plant||6 plants, 12 in one residence||6 plants, 12 in one residence; not within 25 miles (40 km) of retail store|
|Personal use permitted from||09.11.2016||Date dependent on governor approval after recount||15.12.2016||01.01.2017|
These models of supply are similar to those in place in the four states that already permit recreational cannabis: they permit taxed commercial sale; they supplement pre-existing commercial medical cannabis systems; collective growing of ‘personal’ quotas, known in Europe as social clubs, is not permitted. But there are developments.
First, in three of the states, the laws already establish a limit of personal possession of cannabis concentrates — resin or other products — while earlier laws as originally voted did not (some states have added it later).
Secondly, they make provision for places to smoke or consume cannabis other than in private property. This is significant as otherwise tourists are not able to find a place to consume the drug, because of smoking bans in the shops and hotel rooms and a general ban on cannabis use in public. Indeed, this conundrum is thought to be a factor behind the increased demand for edible cannabis products such as sweets, chocolate and drinks. Of the four earlier states, only Alaska had provision for licensed consumption areas, but one year later no licenses have yet been issued.