CANNABIS CULTURE – The legality of cannabis varies differently across the globe. That wasn’t always the case. Less than a hundred years ago, cannabis was readily consumed in virtually every country in the world.
From its beginnings in Central Asia, somewhere between Mongolia and Pakistan depending who you’re asking, thousands of years ago to about the 1900s, cannabis was ok with just about everyone. But then in the 1920s, a fear of addiction drove the United Kingdom, United States and a growing number of countries to outlaw the plant. Backed by newspapers revelation that addiction stories sold newspapers, the fear spread across the nation. The first U.S. state to take action and prohibit cannabis was Massachusetts in 1911. This began the wave that the media mostly churned up in its second wave of yellow journalism.
As The Little Black Book of Marijuana details, “Much of the media coverage traded heavily on the “otherness” of marijuana by playing up the race angle, emphasizing for instance that cannabis was more popular among African Americans and Hispanics than among whites. “Marijuana” (from a Mexican slang term for cannabis) was demonized and associated with madness and mayhem.”
Fear mongering of this variety would continue for decades to come. From Reefer Madness to “Just Say No” campaigns, generations the world over have demonized a plant so widely revered at any other time in history.
That is now changing. Slowly, countries across the continents are changing their ways. From legalization to turning a blind eye, nations understand the demand and profit that comes from cannabis now more than ever. However, other countries are rolling rules further back. Popular marijuana destinations and newly elected governments alike are setting their sights on cannabis.
Today, we break down the legal status of cannabis across the globe, and how it’s impacting its citizens:
When most think of breaking cannabis news, they often assume it comes from North America. In some ways, this is correct. In others, it’s not so much the case.
The United States always serves as a focal point due to its effect as a world influencer through culture and commerce. Its legality once seemed all but growing until the election of Donald Trump. With the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, cannabis communities braced for its uncertain future. Many believe that the booming demand in legal markets will keep cannabis from becoming further scrutinized.
Early reporting from U.S. states show that the Reefer Madness fears of old were rubbish. Two early American states to legalize, Colorado and Washington, revealed minimal impact on public health, including that:
- Teen marijuana use is unchanged.
- In Colorado, marijuana arrests fell by nearly half from 2012 to 2014.
- Marijuana possession charges in Washington state fell by 98 percent between 2012 and 2013.
- Alaska, Oregon and D.C. show similar declines.
- Marijuana legalization appears to have had little impact on traffic fatalities.
Though, two findings revealed some concerning news:
- Rates of cannabis poisonings in small children in Colorado increased. Yet, the overall numbers remain low. There were 47 marijuana-related poison control center calls in Colorado in 2015, up from 25 in 2013.
- The rate of adult emergency department visits for marijuana use also increased following legalization. This was mostly attributable to more emergency department visits from tourists who had come to the state and had a negative experience with marijuana.
In Colorado’s case, the state recently responded to children’s safety by banning gummies and other childlike concentrates.
In Canada, citizens across the country will have access to legal cannabis come Canada Day 2018. Laws will vary based on the province and local rules. However, the ruling does make the nation the most progressive nation to date.
Some might consider Jamaica to be the most pot friendly. That’s common with Bob Marley and Rasta culture being the first connection for most with little Jamaican insights. In actuality, it wasn’t until February of 2015 that the nation amended its 1913 Ganja Laws that targeted lower-income communities (Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015). The act relaxed laws but not entirely. While Rastafarians were granted legal use, they account for less than one percent of the nation. However, non-Rastafarians are now able to enjoy cannabis under a primarily decriminalized country. The same can be said for tourists with a legal prescription.
In Mexico, it recently authorized medical cannabis use. On the surface, this seems much like the situation in Puerto Rico and many U.S. states. Yet, there are significant catches. All cannabis products must contain lower than 1% of THC. Nevertheless, many are still happy as this appears to be an early stepping stone for Mexico. That certainly could be true as legalization is proving to be the best possible solution in the war on drugs, which often includes Mexico’s most dangerous cartels.
Across North America, cannabis legalization appears to be winning out. But, when looking for real cannabis progression, you must look south to find the nation taking the boldest steps.
South America is home to nine countries that have made cannabis legal or decriminalized in some form. While North America gets much of the news in cannabis circles, nations like Uruguay and Colombia are taking advanced steps that only some U.S. states, and soon Canada, have undertaken.
In July of 2017, Uruguay became the first nation to legalize cannabis across the board. In doing so, the country went from casual allowance to full-blown acceptance of the plant. Consumption had never been an issue, but cultivation remained a problem. In 2011, 66-year-old Alicia Castilla became the face of the nation’s cannabis cultivation laws when she was arrested for 29 cannabis plants and 24 grams of marijuana. Her three-month incarceration and a long string of litigation led to changes that began with cultivation laws in 2014. In addition to cannabis cultivation, the country expects a boom from CBD extraction as well as hemp farming to triple.
While many nations across the continent are decriminalizing or approving medical use, Colombia has legalized cannabis possession (up to 22 grams) and growing (up to 20 plants for personal use). This has been a progressive movement in Colombia that began with 2012’s decriminalization, which led to 2015’s medical cannabis legalization. The moves have been life changing. As one mother reported on her daughter’s seizures, “We gave her the first drop of cannabis and Valeria’s seizures went from everyday to every three days, she lasted three days without convulsing, so we kept increasing her dosage. Then she started to convulse only every three months, so that was a huge improvement.”
In October, the country fully licensed its first two privately-held cannabis companies, Canada’s Khiron Life Sciences and PharmaCielo. The same is just beginning to take shape in Peru. Peruvians voted to legalize medical cannabis in late October on the heels of a DIY laboratory ran by mothers making cannabis oil for their sick children.
Similar incremental gains are coming in short succession in many South American countries. Argentina’s acceptance of medical marijuana began in 2016 with two provinces, Chubut and Santa, that led to the federal approval of CBD oil for medicinal purposes.
Chile began its path to legalization by approving federally permitted growers to cultivate cannabis. This led to a decriminalization bill the next year.
In Brazil, its path started earlier than many nations in 2006. However, legal battles and unrest in Brazilian government stalled progress until recently. Finally, at the beginning of 2017, the country issued its first license for cannabis-based drugs for patients. Brazil still treads lightly as cocaine trafficking causes severe security concerns to the nation and hinders the potential of a large-selling cannabis sector.
Across the continent, you will find a varying degree of tolerance to cannabis, and cocaine in some nations. With a different approach to drugs and marijuana, South America often serves as an underlooked region for progressive drug enforcement.
Be it Central or South America, the Latin American viewpoint on cannabis is only just beginning to change. As mentioned in the section above, many South American countries are starting to allow cannabis further into its culture. An International Journal of Drug Policy polled nine countries in Latin America. The study found that many nations are just beginning to question their country’s drug laws. El Salvador represented the only Central American nation polled, and it was considered part of the most conservative countries (including Bolivia and Peru) to drug policy and the risk of cannabis use.
When searching the wires, you hear little to no news compared to the current events in North and South America. Many reasons have been considered for this stance. The predominant cause holding back any legalization conversations is the region’s gang violence problem, tied chiefly to illegal drug trafficking. In this clip, we get a sliver of the gang activity and corruption across several countries:
In territories controlled by drug traffickers, including border regions and urban areas used for storage and transhipment, maras can operate as watchmen, security enforcers, transporters or hitmen. In poor areas of Guatemala City, gang members have displaced families and drug traffickers have temporarily used their homes as warehouses. Some cliques in the west coastal areas of El Salvador are reportedly becoming engaged in the trafficking of drugs north, while Salvadoran gang members have been seen buying weapons from Guatemalan drug dealers. Meanwhile, drug consumption (mostly marijuana) by maras across the Northern Triangle is extremely common. Thousands of suspected gang members were arrested for minor drug possession in 2003-2004 in Guatemala.
However, drug legalization has been something of consideration amongst some regional leaders and pundits. They believe this could ease gang violence and bring tax revenue to areas in dire need of financial support.
A newly formed political party in Costa Rica is promising voters of further legalization if they are elected in February 2018. The VAMOS Party pledges to expand the country’s decriminalization to cover cultivation and distribution as well. Though, with its newly formed status and the nation’s moral aversion to cannabis, 2018 could be a tough ticket.
Meanwhile, Belize joined Costa Rica’s ranks as a more progressive country by recently passing its own decriminalization measures. Now, citizens can possess up to 10 grams of cannabis except schools and other educational institutes. The nation of a little over 300,000 made the move in the best interest of its people and police. The move gives law enforcement officials a direct message of which laws need policing in the country.
Europe was once the beacon of legalization for the world. When people thought of cannabis use, they almost immediately thought of the Netherlands and Amsterdam. Today, Holland has been outpaced by Spain and potentially Germany.
Spain has had cannabis in its legal culture since the early 90s, despite it being hotly contested to this day. While private use and personal cultivation are fine, cannabis clubs have been on the fringe of legal since opening in 1991. Today, Spain has hundreds of these nonprofit clubs that sell cannabis to its members. The majority of them are found in Barcelona and the Catalonia region of the country.
The autonomous region recently legalized marijuana consumption, cultivation and use after over 67,000 citizens signed a petition. With Catalonia clashing with Spain over independence, this ruling is just another in which the governments and citizens mostly disagree.
Meanwhile in Germany, the continent’s largest medical cannabis market has discussed the sales of marijuana in dispensaries or pharmacies. Despite PM Angela Merkel’s claim to not change the status quo, policy still could change. Germany leads Europe in medical marijuana sales but continues to evaluate licenses on a case-by-case basis. Yet, all this may not matter to recreational users as it is described as “self-harm” and thus already legal.
Additionally, across Europe, you will find that 23 of the 50 European nations have some modified cannabis laws. From Croatia (decriminalized and allowed for medical use) to Denmark (only permitted in Freetown) to Holland’s “coffee shop” laws, cannabis is growing into the fabric of many European nations.
However, the Netherlands has been rolling its cannabis-friendly status back since 2011. By changing its categorization of “professional” growers, many citizens found themselves now at the risk of major penalties including eviction and blacklisting from government-funded housing that over half the country relies on.
Today, the perception of an open, tolerable marijuana culture isn’t synonymous with Amsterdam or the Netherlands. Now, it’s Barcelona.
Until recently, Africa and cannabis had very little to report on regarding legalization. However, recent years have seen the massive continent become more alluring to a variety of industries. Now, it appears that the door is opening more and more for several nations.
South Africa leads the movement with its personal use court ruling this past March. The decision comes from the Western Cape High Court that ruled cannabis prohibition unconstitutional. The court’s findings supported adults’ rights to possess, grow and use flower in their home. This doesn’t entirely protect the rights of users, however. In short, users won’t go to jail for growing their cannabis at home but will need to prove it was grown at home. Though a murky ruling, South Africans are still calling this a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Lesotho, the kingdom surrounded by South Africa, became the first African country to grant a license for medicinal marijuana. The license doesn’t do much but gives South Africa’s Verve Dynamics the ability to cultivate marijuana for medical and testing purposes, personal use remains restricted. Despite the move being smaller than South Africa’s, it still represents a potential sentiment shift that many African nations now display.
Swaziland is one of these nations. In 2015, the country began discussing potential benefits of legalizations. Phiwayinkosi Mabuza, Housing and Urban Development Minister said that “First world countries have decriminalized the growing and use of dagga. We have to be objective and not hysterical when we approach the subject.” If legalized, Swaziland Members of Parliment recently stated that the country could earn E23.4 billion (US$1.63 billion) per year via legalization.
Malawi and Zimbabwe are in the early stages as well. Malawian officials are in the initial phase of allowing a mild hemp species (chamba) before discussing cannabis. One official called the topic of cannabis’ legal status as “emotive” and that the country was trying to separate hemp and marijuana into two discussions.
Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, it considered allowing a Canadian company to produce medical cannabis. The deal seemed unreal, literally, to cabinet officials. One told reporters he thought it was a joke, but now sees it’s real and could be a huge business for the nation.
As more nations enter into the mix, a rise in legal African cannabis is at the very least on the table for discussion.
Asia and Oceania
Asia and Oceania make up two large regions that span as far as Israel and down to New Zealand and other island nations. In Japan, cannabis is strictly enforced and can carry a five-year prison sentence and labor for the amount of a joint. Other Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia follow similar laws. Meanwhile, Israel approved cannabis for medicinal purpose while Australia allows for medicinal and research purposes.
The Philippines presents a compelling case of progression, albeit under certain conditions. In October, the national drug enforcement agency supported a medical marijuana bill with proper control and measurements in place. The bill’s author made clear the proposal would be for medical use only. However, under President Rodrigo Duterte, any soft stance on what is considered drugs can appear surprising.
Another interesting, and unresolved, case is North Korea. In recent years, rumors of its legal status have gone across the board. Some have reported that cannabis is either legal or overlooked by officials. Other reports claim that marijuana is prohibited like much of the goods many nations enjoy freely. With such a mystery around the country, no one is certain of where the isolated nation truly stands.
However, if it is unenforced, North Korea would join a growing list of countries that include Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia and other countries that tend to turn a blind eye to its sales and use.
Tolerating cannabis is also where India finds itself. The nation of over 1 billion people list marijuana as illegal on the federal level but tolerates its presence in many states, and is sometimes even legal much like U.S. states. Hemp is another grey area where individual states have differing views about its growth.
Depending on where you are in the world, understand the laws of your current region. Recent data suggest that countries like Nigeria, Turkey and the UAE top the list of long prison sentences for cannabis. Meanwhile, Slovakia, Singapore and Russia offer little comfort in their prison lengths as well. Other countries often deemed open and friendlier, like South Korea and Norway, can also serve out harsh punishments.
Didn’t hear about a particular country of interest in this piece? Then, check out this helpful map for a look at every country’s current classification of cannabis.