Legality of cannabis

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See also: 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. However, possession of the drug in small quantities had been decriminalized in many countries and sub-national entities in several parts of the world. Furthermore, possession is legal or effectively legal in the Netherlands, Uruguay and in the US states of Colorado (Colorado Amendment 64), Oregon (Oregon Ballot Measure 91 (2014)), Alaska and Washington (Washington Initiative 502) as the federal government has indicated that it will not attempt to block enactment of legalization in those states. On 10 December 2013, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize the sale, cultivation, and distribution of cannabis.

The medicinal use of cannabis is legal in a number of countries, including Canada, the Czech Republic and Israel. While federal law in the United States bans all sale and possession of cannabis, enforcement varies widely at the state level and some states have established medicinal marijuana programs that contradict federal law—Colorado and Washington have repealed their laws prohibiting the recreational use of cannabis, and have instated a regulatory regime that is contrary to federal statutes.

Some countries have laws that are not as vigorously prosecuted as others, but apart from the countries that offer access to medical marijuana, most countries have various 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. Drug tests to detect cannabis are increasingly common in many countries and have resulted in jail sentences and loss of employment. However, 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 even execution.

Currently,[when?] Bangladesh, North Korea, Czech Republic, Portugal, Uruguay, the Netherlands, and the United States (Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C.) have the least restrictive cannabis laws while China, Indonesia, Japan, Sweden, Turkey, France, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Philippines and the United Arab Emirates have the strictest cannabis laws.

According to the first ever global study of illicit drug use, published in August 2013 by the Lancet journal, marijuana is the most popularly used illegal drug worldwide.


See also: Legal history of cannabis in the United States

Cannabis has been in use for thousands of years. In India and Nepal cannabis has long been used in religious rituals. 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. From the year 1860, different states in the US started to implement regulations for sales of Cannabis sativa. A 1905 Bulletin from the US Department of Agriculture lists twenty-nine states with laws mentioning cannabis. In 1925, a change of the International Opium Convention banned 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".

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first US national law making cannabis possession illegal, with the exception of industrial or medical purposes. Growers of hemp products were required to purchase an annual tax stamp, priced at $24, and retailers were required to purchase stamps priced at $1 per annum.

The name marijuana (Mexican Spanish marihuana, mariguana) is associated almost exclusively with the plant's psychoactive use. The term is now well known in English largely due to the efforts of American drug prohibitionists during the 1920s and 1930s. Mexico officially adopted prohibition in 1925, following the International Opium Convention.

The use of cannabis became widespread in the Western world due to the rise and influence of the counterculture that began in the late 1960s. In the late 1990s in California, Dennis Peron started a movement to legalize medical cannabis by opening the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club in 1992. The club became the headquarters for an activist movement that drafted the Compassionate Use Act, which was transformed into Proposition 215—the coalition managed to secure the passage of Proposition 215 with the support of billionaire and philanthropist George Soros in November 1996.

A BBC article, published in October 2011, reported on the actions of local authorities in the border town of Maastricht in the Netherlands. According to the article, the authorities were primarily concerned with those cannabis customers who had traveled from other European countries, such as Belgium and Germany. At the time, broader restrictions, which would apply to the entire nation, were being discussed in the Dutch parliament. From October 1, 2011, only Dutch, Belgian and German residents would be prohibited from purchasing cannabis from venues in Maastricht.

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 controlled substance under federal law and is subject to federal prosecution under the doctrine of dual sovereignty and Supremacy Clause.

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.

In a historical event with global significance, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed two bills on May 28, 2013 that made Colorado the world's first fully regulated recreational cannabis market for adults. Hickenlooper said to the media: "Certainly, this industry will create jobs. Whether it’s good for the brand of our state is still up in the air. But the voters passed Amendment 64 by a clear majority. That’s why we’re going to implement it as effectively as we possibly can." In its independent analysis, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy found that the state could expect a 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."

Uruguay then 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. Julio Calzada, Secretary-General of Uruguay’s National Drug Council, said in a December 2013 interview that the government will be responsible for regulating the production side of the process: "Companies can get a license to cultivate if they meet all the criteria. However, this won’t be a free market. The government will control the entire production and determine the price, quality, and maximum production volume."

Under the new law, people are allowed to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 oz) of cannabis from the Uruguayan government each month. Users have to be 18 or older and be registered in a national database to track their consumption. Cultivators are allowed to grow up to 6 crops at their homes each year and shall not surpass 480 grams (17 oz). Registered smoking clubs are allowed to grow 99 plants annually. Buying cannabis is prohibited to foreigners and it is illegal to move it across international borders.

In July 2014, president Calzada announced that the implementation of the law is postponed to 2015, as "there are practical difficulties," and explained that authorities will grow all the cannabis that can be sold legally. The concentration of THC shall be 15% or lower. An opposition presidential candidate claimed that the new law is never going to be applied, because of a perception that it is not practicable.

As of October 2014, the Government of Netherlands website explains that coffee shops are permitted to sell cannabis under certain strict conditions: venues cannot sell alcoholic drinks; the consumption of alcohol on the premises is not permitted; the venues must not create any form of public nuisance; "hard drugs" cannot be sold; cannabis cannot be sold to minors; drugs cannot be advertised; and "large quantities" of cannabis (more than five grams) cannot be sold in a single transaction. Individual municipalities are responsible for permitting the establishment of cannabis coffee shops within their boundaries, and are also allowed to introduce additional rules.

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.

Alcohol and marijuana prohibition correlation

Franklin D. Roosevelt promised in the election for president to end the prohibition for alcohol. He fulfilled that promise in 1933. For cannabis Roosevelt supported more restrictive laws from 1935. The U.S 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." 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. The bill originated in the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, but that law didn’t actually ban []marijuana]] outright.

Attitudes regarding legalization

Many advocate legalization of cannabis, believing that it will eliminate the illegal trade and associated crime, yield a valuable tax-source and reduce policing costs. Cannabis is now available as a palliative agent, in Canada, with a medical prescription. In 1969, only 16% percent of voters in the USA supported legalization, according to a poll by Gallup. According to the same source, that number had risen to 36% by 2005. More recent polling indicates that the number has risen even further; in 2009, between 46% and 56% of US voters would support legalization. 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.

Attitudes regarding marijuana regulation have also changed as some states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, 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 a difference in age groups for those that think marijuana should be legal and those that still support prohibition: 60% of 18-29 year-olds favor legalization while only 48% of those age 30-64 and 36% of those older than 65 feel this way.

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 be easier to obtain, the perception of risk would be reduced and more adult role models will be using. However, studies in Colorado have shown that there has been no connection between legalized marijuana laws and youth marijuana use because Colorado teen use is lower than the national average, fewer teens are reporting they use marijuana than compared to reported use prior to legalization laws and underage use will continue to decrease with strict age limits and implementation of risk awareness programs.

This year 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. The current campaigns provide information on the laws of marijuana and impacts on youth use, the dangers of driving under the influence of all drugs and the harmful side effects of using marijuana. 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 pot 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 support 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. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center in February 2014 shows an increase in the percentage of legalization supporters, from 52% to 54%,


In 2012, Denver City Council voted unanimously to ban all outdoor medical marijuana ads in the state of Colorado, where marijuana is legal to purchase for people 21 years of age or older. This ban includes billboards, posters, bus benches, and sign twirlers. Marijuana businesses are still able to advertise on television, radio, online, and on print but must use a disclaimer indicating the products being advertised are for registered Colorado medical marijuana patients only. The council's Debbie Ortega and Christopher Herndon are behind the proposal which is an expansion of a May plan by Ortega that called for a ban on medical marijuana ads within 1,000 feet of schools, daycares and parks after she received complaints from constituents, Westword reports.

The medical marijuana community in Denver remains divided on this issue. The Cannabis Business Alliance, one advocacy group that fought against the full ad ban, was disappointed by the outcome. They claim that although they supported the original proposal to ban ads within 1,000 feet of schools and parks, the terms of this full ban are not clear enough in regards to outside marketing that falls outside of billboards, bus benches, and sign twirlers like festivals and merchandise. Kush Magazine went as far as saying that the ban is a violation of the First Amendment.

Kush Magazine reported in June that the often loud, over-the-top advertising by medical marijuana dispensaries in Denver has to do with trying to stand out in an overcrowded marketplace—there are approximately 200 dispensaries in Denver alone competing for more than 50,000 valid patients. Pot industry magazine The Medical Marijuana Business Daily says that the ban could force dispensaries to market themselves in more traditional ways making it harder to stand out and much harder to attract local passersby with a showy billboard or sign twirler. But perhaps that's not all bad when the signage the proposed ban addresses has created some backlash.

On the other side of the debate is the Medical Marijuana Industry Group (MMIG), a trade association that advocates for responsible medical marijuana regulation at the local, state, and national level, who actively pushed for the ad ban that passed, and says the ban is ultimately positive for the industry. Michael Elliott, the executive director of MMIG explained in a Huffington Post article why he and his group supported the article: “The Denver City Council recently passed an ordinance which will eliminate certain troublesome advertising practices utilized by some participants in the medical marijuana industry. My organization, the Medical Marijuana Industry Group (MMIG), supported this ordinance because we believe it finds the right balance between protecting the interests of the medical marijuana community and the citizens of Denver [...] Under the new ordinance, medical marijuana businesses will still have access to a comprehensive range of affordable venues in which to advertise. These include but are not limited to: the print media, merchandising, and web-based solutions including social media. In addition, business signage will still be allowed. But most importantly, patients can be assured that they will have the necessary tools to easily locate and procure their medication. Put simply, this ordinance addresses those concerns most often voiced by Denver’s citizenry, while maintaining the rights of industry participants to market their businesses in an efficient, fair, and cost-effective manner.”

The Associated Press reports that Colorado attorney Lenny Frieling, an outspoken marijuana legalization advocate, didn't want marijuana singled out like this saying, "I don't think any medicines should be advertised, period, end of story. Whether it's medical marijuana or something that will give me an erection for eight hours, I find it all inappropriate," Frieling said. "Ban it all or don't ban any of it." However most of Denver's city council members disagreed with Frieling and do want to give medical marijuana businesses the ability to advertise—just not in the over-the-top way that some have been. "We are still allowing advertising," Councilman Herndon, one of the backers of the ad ban said. "We just don't want it in your face."

Despite the rules against allowing dispensaries to advertise in the public space, the magazine High Times has sued the state of Colorado in order to gain advertising in print press. The law states that stores providing recreational marijuana can advertise in publications that have “reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the publication's readership is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21”. This lawsuit argues that the inability to advertise in magazines, as well as any kind of medium, is as restriction on the freedom of speech article in the Constitution. However, none of these policies apply to the medical marijuana business. Also accompanying the High Times magazine in this lawsuit is a local publication called Westwood. David Lane, the attorney representing High Times, states that these rules “irrationally single out Retail Marijuana Establishments for more stringent advertising restrictions than those regulating the alcohol industry, although the Colorado Constitution calls for the regulation of marijuana ‘in a manner similar to alcohol.’” This lawsuit, commencing in February, still has not come to any conclusion.

In August of 2014, Colorado public health officials started an advertising campaign targeted at teenagers warning them of the dangers of smoking marijuana during adolescence. The campaign, which is called "Don't Be A Lab Rat", is displaying human-sized cages across Colorado that display provocative messages about harm the drug can cause while the teenage body is maturing. This campaign, which also includes television commercials, has been criticized by Colorado's legal pot industry and has been called a scare tactic. The campaign has been funded with $2 million from the state attorney generals office, as well as the city of Denver, and foundations across the state. Mike Sukle's advertising agency was hired by the state and designed the campaign and has called the job "a monumental task".

Later that August in 2014, the city of Boulder, Colorado’s superintendent, Bruce Messinger, announced that the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign would not be appropriate for the community. Messinger stated that his objection to the campaign was the fact that inviting pre-teen to teenage students into massive rat cages was not the most effective way to get their message across. Messinger was quoted saying “scare tactics don’t work”. He then went on in the interview to question the validity of some of the studies referred to in the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign.

On the other hand, Dr. Larry Wolk, the executive director and chief medical officer at the state health department and one of the driving forces behind “Don’t Be a Lab Rat”, stated that the entire intent of the campaign was to get kids to start talking amongst themselves and with adults about the possible effects of marijuana. Although the campaign was shut down in the schools within Boulder, it has been, according to Dr. Wolk, very successful in other locations. For example, the campaigns that were in Denver’s public library and downtown skate park had received much positive feedback.

In response to this campaign, U.S. Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has been quoting saying: "It's a bizarre, ill-fated campaign...I think they need to go back to the drawing board on that one." Polis went on to say that "Most people who saw [the advertisements] thought they had something to do with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), like they are trying to free laboratory rats from the University of Colorado...And also, kids are playing in the cages." While Rep. Polis has been critical, Dr. Wolk says "We are pleased that the Don't Be a Lab Rat campaign has served as a catalyst to start a much-needed conversation among teens, parents and influencers about the potential negative effects of marijuana on developing brains...Critique and criticism of the creative elements of the campaign were to be expected and have helped further the conversation."

Non-drug purposes

Main article: Hemp

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.

Industrial strains intended for legal use within the EU are bred to comply with regulations limiting THC content to 0.2%.[citation needed] (THC content is a measure of the herb's drug potential and can reach 25% or more in drug strains).

International reform

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..

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.

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, the classification was moved to the less stringent Class C in January 2004, but was returned to Class B in January 2009.


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.


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:

"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, 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; 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.

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.

See also

Adult lifetime cannabis use by country

Annual cannabis use by country

Cannabis and lobbying efforts

Effects of cannabis

Legal and medical status of cannabis

Legal history of cannabis in the United States

Legality of cannabis by country

Cannabis Social Club