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Legality of cannabis

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Cannabis laws throughout the world
A visual summary of worldwide recreational cannabis laws. Details: Legality of cannabis by country

The legality of cannabis varies from country to country. Possession of cannabis is illegal in most countries and has been since the beginning of widespread cannabis prohibition in the late 1930s.[1] However, possession of the plant in small quantities has been decriminalized in many countries and sub-national entities in several parts of the world. On 10 December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the sale, cultivation, and distribution of cannabis.[2][3] In the Netherlands the Opium Law of 1976 enables consumers to buy marijuana in legal "coffeeshops" if certain rules are followed, but large scale production and trade remain illegal. In the United States, federal law prohibits possession or sale of marijuana for any purpose, but the Obama Administration refrained from prosecuting users and dealers operating in compliance with state (see Legality of cannabis by U.S. jurisdiction), territory, and Indian reservation laws which permit medical or recreational marijuana.[4][5]

The medicinal use of cannabis is legal in a number of countries, including Canada, the Czech Republic and Israel. Medical cannabis in the United States is legal in 29 states as of December 2016. Pot parlors were legalized in California in November 2016.[6]

Some countries have laws which are not as vigorously prosecuted as other countries, but apart from the countries which offer access to medical marijuana, most countries have penalties ranging from lenient to very severe. Some infractions are taken more seriously in some countries than others in regard to the cultivation, use, possession or transfer of cannabis for recreational use. A few jurisdictions have lessened penalties for possession of small quantities of cannabis, making it punishable by confiscation and a fine, rather than imprisonment. Some jurisdictions/drug courts use mandatory treatment programs for young or frequent users, with freedom from narcotic drugs as the goal and a few jurisdictions permit cannabis use for medicinal purposes. Routine drug tests to detect cannabis are most common in the United States, and have resulted in jail sentences and loss of employment even for medical use. In most European countries, privacy and labor laws prevent such testing for job applicants.[7] Simple possession can carry long jail sentences in some countries, particularly in parts of East Asia and Southeast Asia, where the sale of cannabis may lead to life imprisonment or execution.



Cannabis has been in use for thousands of years. In India and Nepal, Cannabis has long been used in religious rituals.[8]

Under the name cannabis, nineteenth-century medical practitioners sold the drug (usually as a tincture), popularizing the word among English-speakers. In 1894, the Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, commissioned by the UK Secretary of State and the Government of India, was instrumental in a decision not to criminalize the drug in those countries (See Shamir and Hacker (2001) in 'further readings' below.)[9] From the year 1860, different states in the US started to implement regulations for sales of Cannabis sativa.[10] A 1905 Bulletin from the US Department of Agriculture lists twenty-nine states with laws mentioning cannabis.[11] In 1925, a change of the International Opium Convention[12] banned the exportation of Indian hemp to countries that have prohibited its use. Importing countries were required to issue certificates approving the importation, stating that the shipment was to be used "exclusively for medical or scientific purposes".

Around 1840, doctors came to believe that cannabis had a medical value, and it was freely sold for over a century in pharmacies.[13] Marijuana was freely grown, sold, and used in the United States until it was criminalized in 1937.[13] The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made cannabis possession illegal in the United States, except for industrial or medical purposes. Growers of hemp products were required to purchase an annual tax stamp, while hemp retailers were required to purchase stamps priced at $1 per annum.[14][citation needed] Mexico prohibited cannabis in 1925, following the International Opium Convention.[15]

In the late 1990s in California, Dennis Peron started a movement to legalize medical cannabis, opening the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club in 1992. It became the headquarters for an activist movement that drafted the Compassionate Use Act, which was transformed into Proposition 215. Proposition 215 was passed into law in November 1996.[16]

On November 6, 2012, Colorado Amendment 64 and Washington Initiative 502 were passed by popular initiative, thereby becoming the first American states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis under state law. However cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I substance.[17]

On January 1, 2013, an amendment to the Netherlands' cannabis policy was introduced to "combat drug-related crime and nuisance". The new rule requires cannabis coffee shop owners to monitor the identities of their customers to ensure that only residents of the Netherlands purchase cannabis. Owners are expected to maintain adherence through procedures such as asking customers to produce valid documents to prove their status.[18]

On May 28, 2013, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper signed two bills that made Colorado the world's first fully regulated recreational cannabis market for adults.[19] In its independent analysis, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy found that the state could expect to see "$60 million in total combined savings and additional revenue for Colorado's budget with a potential for this number to double after 2017".[20] Since then, Colorado has had to increase public surveillance and public health awareness on the use of marijuana, as more people have access to the drug.[21]

Uruguay became the world's first nation to legalize the production, sale, and consumption of cannabis in December 2013 after a 16–13 vote in the Senate.[2] The government stated that it intended to control production, price, and quality.[22] Under the new law, people are allowed to buy up to 40 g (1.4 oz) of cannabis from the Uruguayan government each month. Users have to be 18 or older and register in a national database that tracks their consumption. Cultivators are allowed to grow up to 6 crops at their homes each year and must not surpass 480 g (17 oz). Registered smoking clubs are allowed to grow 99 plants annually. Buying cannabis is prohibited for foreigners, and it is illegal to move it across international borders.[23] In July 2014, implementation was postponed to 2015, amidst controversy about the law's practicality.[24][25][26]

As of October 2014, the Government of the Netherlands website explained that coffee shops were permitted to sell cannabis under certain strict conditions: venues could not sell alcoholic drinks; the consumption of alcohol on the premises would not be permitted; the venues must not create any form of public nuisance; "hard drugs" must not be sold; cannabis could not be sold to minors; drugs could not be advertised; and "large quantities" of cannabis (more than five grams) cannot be sold in a single transaction. Individual municipalities were responsible for permitting the establishment of cannabis coffee shops within their boundaries, and also allowed to introduce additional rules.[18] The Dutch Public Prosecution Service does not prosecute members of the public for "possession of small quantities of soft drugs", which are defined as: "no more than 5 grams of cannabis (marijuana or hash); no more than 5 cannabis plants". It is illegal to grow cannabis plants in the Netherlands, but in cases in which a maximum of five plants is grown for "personal consumption", the authorities will most likely seize the plants, without taking any further action. If more than five plants are seized, the police may also seek prosecution.[18]

In Switzerland, a ballot measure legalizing Cannabis for personal cultivation and use ("Hemp-Initiative") was rejected in 2008 by popular vote. In some larger Swiss cities, cannabis regulations were relaxed, and the drug was offered as potpourri not intended for smoking. These cannabis stores were tolerated in the late 1990s until about 2003, when they were raided largely due to accusations of tax avoidance.[27] In 2005, a top-down measure to legalize cannabis through an effort of Swiss parliament was rejected with a narrow margin. With regard to cannabis products derived from fiber hemp or cannabidiol-rich chemotypes, Swiss law explicitly allows for the legal use of all cannabis varieties with a limit of 1% (previously 0.1%) THC. While narcotic cannabis possession has been decriminalized on a national level since 2010, larger cities and agglomerations have started decriminalization efforts already in the 1970s, limiting legal consequences of cannabis possession to fines, and later tolerating private cannabis clubs. In 2016, a number of shops have started to offer cannabidiol-based cannabis products, which are tolerated by authorities. However, such products are subject to Swiss tobacco tax, with expected federal tax revenues of about 24 million CHF per year.[28]

In November 2015, Uttarakhand became the first state of India to legalize the cultivation of cannabis for industrial purposes.[29]

Possession of cannabis in Canada for recreational use is planned to be legalized by the government in 2018; medical cannabis is already legal in line with the country's Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations. During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberals (who subsequently formed the new federal government) had promised "new, stronger laws" against sales to minors, driving while impaired, and sales through channels not specifically authorized to do so.[30]

After November 2016 elections and voting on propositions ended, four states in America, namely Florida, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Montana legalized medical marijuana. Four other states, namely California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and older.[31]

In May 2017, during campaigning for the 2017 United Kingdom general election, the Liberal Democrat party announced in its manifesto that it would support the legalisation of cannabis if elected, permitting licensed stores to sell it to over-18s, letting people use it in their own homes and introducing small "cannabis-smoking clubs". In doing so, the Lib Dems became the first major UK party to advocate cannabis legalisation[32] (the Green Party of England and Wales having already been in favour of cannabis decriminalisation since the party was formed in 1990[33]).

Alcohol and marijuana prohibition correlationEdit

Franklin D. Roosevelt promised in the 1932 presidential election to end the prohibition for alcohol and fulfilled that promise in 1933. However, Roosevelt supported more restrictive laws from 1935 for cannabis.[34] The US Treasury Department created a new department in 1930 named the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Harry J. Anslinger – who previously held the position of Assistant Prohibition Commissioner – became the Commissioner of Narcotics in 1930. Commissioner Anslinger's report in 1935 noted: "In the absence of Federal legislation on the subject, the States and cities should rightfully assume the responsibility for providing vigorous measures for the extinction of this lethal weed, and it is therefore hoped that all public-spirited citizens will earnestly enlist in the movement urged by the Treasury Department to adjure intensified enforcement of marijuana laws."[35] By 1937, 46 out of 48 states had officially classified cannabis as a narcotic along the lines of morphine, heroin, and cocaine. Anslinger's campaign supported the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Attitudes regarding legalizationEdit

Many advocate legalization of cannabis, believing that it will eliminate the illegal trade and associated crime, yield valuable tax and reduce policing costs.[36] For example, in Canada, where Cannabis is legal for medical use, with a doctor's prescription, 7 in 10 Canadians also favor full decriminalization according to a June 2016 national poll.[37]

In 1969, only 16% of voters in the USA supported legalization, according to a Gallup poll. Another said that this number had risen to 36% by 2005.[38] More recent polling indicates that the number has risen even further; in 2009, between 46% and 56% of US voters said they would support legalization.[39] According to press reports, supporters of the California initiative estimate that about $15 billion worth of marijuana is sold every year in the state. Thus, an excise tax on the retail sales of marijuana could raise at least $1.3 billion a year in revenue.[40]

Attitudes regarding marijuana regulation have also changed as some states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine, and Alaska) have passed their own laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. According to a Gallup Poll published in December 2012, 64% of Americans believe the federal government should not intervene in these states. The survey also found an age difference between those that think marijuana should be legal and those that still support prohibition: 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds favor legalization while only 48% of those age 30–64 and 36% of those older than 65 feel this way.[41]

The marijuana industry has grown significantly since 2000 and federal officials maintain that the legalization of marijuana will contribute to the increase of youth and adolescent use because it will make marijuana easier to obtain, reduce its perceived risks and more adult role models would be smoking it. However, studies in Colorado have shown no connection between legalized marijuana and youth marijuana use. In Colorado teen use is lower than the national average, fewer teens report using marijuana than said they did prior to legalization. Underage use will continue to decrease with strict age limits, Colorado believes, and the implementation of risk awareness programs.[42] Surveys conducted in Colorado interviewed over 17,000 students in middle & high school showing that from 2009 to 2015 the rates in which teenagers smoked marijuana has decreased. The state of Colorado has also seen the percentage of teenagers who have smoked marijuana in the past 30 days drop to 21%, from 25%.[43]

In 2014, Colorado invested $2 million generated from marijuana sales tax revenue on campaigns aimed at anti-marijuana education of minors and the state has plans to spend double that amount, $4 million in 2015 (out of a total projected marijuana sales tax revenue of $125 million). The current campaigns provide information on marijuana laws, the impacts of youth use, the dangers of driving under the influence of any drug, and the harmful side effects of using marijuana.[44] With strict laws on possession and use, the state is working to deter underage and unsafe use. By redirecting Colorado's tax revenues to educational programs for youth and adults the state is showing a commitment to fully inform the public and that may be making strides in keeping youth cannabis use to a minimum, or at least helping to keep teen uses from increasing.

In the Pew Research Center poll released on April 4, 2013, 52 percent of Americans supported legalizing the drug and only 45 percent oppose legalization. While support has generally tracked upward over time, it has spiked 11 percentage points since 2010.[45] Research conducted by the Pew Research Center in February 2014 shows an increase in the percentage of legalization supporters, from 52% to 54%,[46]

Islamic viewEdit

In the medieval Arab world, hashish use was associated with Sufism, a counterculture within the Arab community. Their religious stance and non-conformist attitudes to conservative Islamic rules combined to make the Sufis pariahs in the Arab world. Islamic leaders used the Sufis' hashish culture as a pretext for oppressing dissent within the societies they controlled. While efforts to eliminate hashish have often been quite dramatic, all attempts ultimately have proved futile.[47]

Mainstream Islam forbids the use of any mind-altering substance, including cannabis.[citation needed] Avicenna recommends the drug only for medicinal applications but enforcement of such laws is predominantly upheld by local authorities. In countries where large cannabis production facilities exist, such as Morocco and Afghanistan, cannabis trade and consumption are illegal, and attempts to traffic cannabis are rigorously enforced by national police. Generally, the use of psychoactive THC-containing cannabis products is less common among traditional Arab populations but more widespread in North Africa, Central Asia and India.[citation needed] In recent times,[when?] Morocco has been exploring the use of cannabis for medical purposes.[48]

Use of capital punishment against the cannabis tradeEdit

Several countries have either carried out or legislated capital punishment for cannabis trafficking.

Country Status Notes
Saudi Arabia Has been used An Iraqi man named Mattar bin Bakhit al-Khazaali was convicted of smuggling hashish in the northern town of Arar, close to the Iraqi border and was executed in 2005.[49]
Indonesia Has been used In 1997, the Indonesian government[citation needed] added the death penalty as a punishment for those convicted of drugs in their country. The law has yet to be enforced on any significant, well-established drug dealers. The former Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri announced Indonesia's intent to implement a fierce war on drugs in 2002. She called for the execution of all drug dealers. "For those who distribute drugs, life sentences and other prison sentences are no longer sufficient," she said. "No sentence is sufficient other than the death sentence." Indonesia's new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also proudly supports executions for drug dealers.[50]
Malaysia Has been used Mustaffa Kamal Abdul Aziz, 38 years old, and Mohd Radi Abdul Majid, 53 years old, were executed at dawn on January 17, 1996, for the trafficking of 1.2 kilograms of cannabis.[51]
Philippines No longer imposed: Extrajudicial killings now commonplace The Philippines abolished the death penalty on June 24, 2006.[52] Previously, the Philippines had introduced stronger anti-drug laws, including the death penalty, in 2002.[53] Possession of over 500 grams of marijuana usually earned execution in the Philippines, as did possessing over ten grams of opium, morphine, heroin, ecstasy, or cocaine. Angeles City is often a Vatican for Filipino cannabis users and cultivators, although enforcement has been inconsistent.[54]
United Arab Emirates Sentenced In the United Arab Emirates city of Fujairah, a woman named Lisa Tray was sentenced to death in December 2004, after being found guilty of possessing and dealing hashish. Undercover officers in Fujairah claim they caught Tray with 149 grams of hashish. Her lawyers have appealed the sentence.[citation needed]

In July 2012, a 23-year-old British man Nathaniel Lees,[55] and an unnamed 19-year-old Syrian citizen was sentenced to death for attempting to sell 20 grams (about 3/4 of an ounce) of marijuana to an undercover officer in Dubai. [56] [57] [58]

Thailand Frequently used Death penalty is possible for drug offenses under Thai law. Extrajudicial killings also alleged.[59]
Singapore Frequently used Death penalty has been carried out many times for cannabis trafficking. (July 20, 2004) A convicted drug trafficker, Raman Selvam Renganathan who stored 2.7 kilograms of cannabis or marijuana in a Singapore flat was hanged in Changi Prison. He was sentenced to death on September 1, 2003 after an eight-day trial. (The Straits Times, July 20, 2004).
People's Republic of China Frequently used Death penalty is exercised regularly for drug tradings under Chinese law, often in an annual frenzy corresponding to the United Nations' International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking.[60] The government does not make precise records public, however Amnesty International estimates that around 500 people are executed there each year for drug offenses[citation needed]. Those executed have typically been convicted of smuggling or trafficking in anything from cannabis to methamphetamine.
United States Never imposed While current US federal law allows for the death penalty for those who have extraordinary amounts of the drug (60,000 kilograms or 60,000 plants) or are part of a continuing criminal enterprise in smuggling contraband which nets over $20 million, the United States Supreme Court has held that no crimes other than murder and treason can constitutionally carry a death sentence; however, Kennedy v. Louisiana left open the possibility of capital punishment for crimes against the state (e.g., treason, espionage, drug kingpin activity) regardless of whether or not death actually occurred. (Coker v. Georgia and Kennedy v. Louisiana)

Non-drug purposesEdit

Hemp is the common name for cannabis and is the English term used when this annual herb is grown for non-drug purposes. These include industrial purposes for which cultivation licenses may be issued in the European Union (EU). When grown for industrial purposes hemp is often called industrial hemp, and a common product is fibre for use in a variety of different ways. Fuel is often a by-product of hemp cultivation.

Hemp seed may be used as food. Though the UK's Defra (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) will not issue cultivation licenses for this purpose, treating it as a non-food crop, the seed appears on the UK market as a food product.

In the UK hemp seed and fibre have always been perfectly legal products. Cultivation for non drug purposes was, however, completely prohibited from 1928 until circa 1998, when Home Office industrial-purpose licenses became available under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

International reformEdit

Cannabis reform at the international level refers to efforts to ease restrictions on cannabis use under international treaties. Internationally, the drug is in Schedule IV, the most restrictive category, of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As of January 1, 2005, 180 nations belonged to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.[61]

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs makes a distinction between recreational, medical and scientific uses of drugs; nations are allowed to permit medical use of drugs, but recreational use is prohibited by Article 4:

The parties shall take such legislative and administrative measures as may be necessary . . . Subject to the provisions of this Convention, to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs.

The Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances requires its Parties to establish criminal penalties for possession of drugs prohibited under the Single Convention for recreational use. A nation wanting to legalize marijuana would have to withdraw from the treaties; every signatory has a right to do this.[62]

Pro-Legalization Poster in Belgrade, Serbia

As of January 2009, "cannabis, cannabis resin, cannabinol and its derivatives" are categorized as Class B drugs, in accordance with "(Amendment) Order 2008" of the United Kingdom's Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Following a proposal by UK politician David Blunkett "to seek the reclassification of cannabis from a Class B drug to a Class C drug" in 2001,[63] the classification was moved to the less stringent Class C in January 2004,[64] but was returned to Class B in January 2009.[65]


Some barriers to cannabis reform are the result of the international drug control structure, while others are related to political circumstances. A number of non-government organizations support the prohibition of cannabis as a recreational drug. In 2013, 97 NGOs in 37 countries joined the World Federation Against Drugs.[66]


The international drug control system is overseen by the United Nations General Assembly and UN Economic and Social Council. The Single Convention grants the Commission on Narcotic Drugs the power to reschedule controlled substances. Cindy Fazey, the former Chief of Demand Reduction for the United Nations Drug Control Programme, said:[67]

"Theoretically, the conventions can be changed by modification, such as moving a drug from one schedule to another or simply by removing it from the schedules. However, this cannot be done with cannabis because it is embedded in the text of the 1961 Convention. Also, the modification would need a majority of the Commissions' 53 members to vote for it. Amendment to the conventions, that is changing an article or part of an article, does not offer a more promising route for the same reason. Even if a majority were gained, then only one state need ask for the decision to go to the Economic and Social Council for further consideration and demand a vote. The 1971 and 1988 Conventions need a two-thirds majority for change, not just a simple majority."

To modify cannabis regulations at the international level, a conference to adopt amendments in accordance with Article 47 of the Single Convention would be needed. This has been done once, with the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs;[citation needed] as Fazey notes, this process is fraught with bureaucratic obstacles.


In reference to situations where the Commission on Narcotic Drugs proposes changing the scheduling of any drug, 21 U.S.C. § 811(d)(2)(B) of The U.S. Controlled Substances Act gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to issue recommendations that are binding on the U.S. representative in international discussions and negotiations:

"Whenever the Secretary of State receives information that the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of the United Nations proposes to decide whether to add a drug or other substance to one of the schedules of the Convention, transfer a drug or substance from one schedule to another, or delete it from the schedules, the Secretary of State shall transmit timely notice to the Secretary of Health and Human Services of such information who shall publish a summary of such information in the Federal Register and provide opportunity to interested persons to submit to him comments respecting the recommendation which he is to furnish, pursuant to this subparagraph, respecting such proposal. The Secretary of Health and Human Services shall evaluate the proposal and furnish a recommendation to the Secretary of State which shall be binding on the representative of the United States in discussions and negotiations relating to the proposal."

The U.S Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) denied in June 2011 a petition that proposed rescheduling of cannabis and enclosed a long explanation for the denial.[68]

On March 5, 2013, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) urged the United States government to challenge the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington. INCB President, Raymond Yans stated that these state laws violate international drug treaties, namely the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. The Office of the US Attorney General said in December 2012 that regardless of any changes in state law, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remained illegal under federal law. Raymond Yans called the statement "good but insufficient" and said he hoped that the issue would soon be addressed by the US Government in line with the international drug control treaties.[69]

See alsoEdit


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  70. ^ Abuse, National Institute on Drug. "Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice)". 

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit