Canada’s legalization of recreational cannabis has occupied much of the media attention this year, but there is a quiet movement to partially or totally legalized cannabis in a lot of countries.
Another trend has to do with reclassifying cannabis as generally safe and different from synthetic, addictive narcotics like heroin.
Latin America is a hotbed of happenings on the cannabis front. A study published the International Journal of Drug Policy found that, in some parts of the region, more than 40% of respondents supported cannabis legalization, while in other, more conservative areas, support remained minimal.
Uruguay’s Law to Legalize and Regulate Cannabis adopted in 2013 brought radical change to the country’s approach to cannabis production and use. In 2017, the Latin American country became the first country to allow recreational cannabis to be sold in pharmacies. It is the final step of a nearly four-year process to legalize the production, sale and consumption of the plant.
The General Health Law of Costa Rica prohibits the personal use of narcotics and other drugs but does not penalize those who violate this prohibition. A bill that would regulate the production of cannabis and hemp plants for medical and industrial purposes was debated in the Legislative Assembly in December of 2014. However, that bill has yet to pass. In January 2016 a criminal tribunal in the city of Alajuela acquitted an attorney who had planted marijuana for personal consumption.
The Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is the only Eastern European country in the post-Communist era to have reduced punishments for some drug-related activities. The use of cannabis for medical purposes was legalized in 2013. The production and sale of drugs have always been punishable under Czech criminal law. The possession of drugs was decriminalized after the collapse of the Communist regime, but penalties were reinstated in 1999 for possession in amounts “larger than small.” The new Criminal Code enacted in 2009 differentiates between cannabis and other drugs, and imposes less strict penalties for the use and cultivation of cannabis.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a decree earlier this year legalizing medical cannabis. The measure also classified the psychoactive ingredient in the plant as “therapeutic.” The new policy isn’t exactly opening the door for medical cannabis dispensaries on every corner. Instead it calls on the Ministry of Health to draft and implement regulations and public policies regulating “the medicinal use of pharmacological derivatives of cannabis sativa, indica and Americana or marijuana, including tetrahydrocannabinol.” It also tasks the ministry with developing a research program to study the drug’s impact before creating broader policies. The measure had broad support from Mexico’s Senate and Lower House of Congress, where it passed 347-7 in April.
The Dutch Opium Act contains the legal rules pertaining to narcotics. The Act differentiates between “hard drugs” (schedule I) and “soft drugs” (schedule II). Cannabis is listed in schedule II. In general, possession and trade in drugs is illegal, but penalties are more severe for hard drugs. The Prosecutor-General publishes directives that set out the Dutch tolerance policy in drug cases, which means that even though the activity is technically illegal, the offender will not be prosecuted as long as certain conditions are met. The directives address the operation of coffee shops in which soft drugs may be purchased and used, the different approaches in cases involving hard drugs and soft drugs, and what constitutes a small quantity of drugs for personal use. As such, cannabis is generally available and tolerated in coffee shops but is not technically legal.
An application for an exemption from the Opium Act for cannabis and cannabis resin can be filed with the Bureau voor Medicinale Cannabis (Office for Medicinal Cannabis Research) for reasons of public health, animal health, academic or chemical analytical research, training, or trade-related purposes.
In 2000, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalize drugs. To further implement the strategy, the government enacted Decree-Law No. 183 that approved a general system of prevention policies, risk reduction, and minimization of harm and created programs and public health structures for increasing awareness and providing for the referral of drug addicts for treatment.
The rate of new HIV infections in Portugal has fallen precipitously since 2001, the year its law took effect, declining from 1,016 cases to only 56 in 2012. Overdose deaths decreased from 80 the year that decriminalization was enacted to only 16 in 2012. In the US, by comparison, more than 14,000 people died in 2014 from prescription opioid overdoses alone. Portugal’s current drug-induced death rate, three per million residents, is more than five times lower than the European Union’s average of 17.3, according to EU figures.
Australian state and territory legislation contains offenses related to illicit drugs like heroin. Earlier this year, the Australian Parliament passed amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act that legalizes cannabis for medical and scientific purposes.
After much debate, the German parliament legalized medical cannabis this year. Patients are now able to receive up to five ounces per month at a cost of $12 per ounce under public health insurance (which covers 90% of Germans). They can fill a doctor’s prescription at any licensed apotheke, or pharmacy. Reimbursement happens via a special fund set up by the government. There is no list of qualifying illness.