Where Is Cannabis Legal Around the World?

The legal status of cannabis around the world

The cannabis movement has blown up since 2018 and it is believed to increase even more in 2019 Image Credit: By Vladimir Arndt on Shutterstock

When Canada became the second country to fully legalize cannabis in October 2018, it was acting in defiance of three international treaties it had signed — the earliest of which dates from 1961. For more than half a century, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs has defined international cannabis policy. Now, however, it’s facing major challenges around the world.

The Single Convention, which was ratified by more than 100 countries worldwide, was originally enacted to counter illegal drug trafficking of a host of banned substances, such as cocaine and heroin, in addition to cannabis. Today, while many of the signatories have drawn a distinction between cannabis and other “dangerous substances” — and adjusted their domestic drug policies accordingly — conservative countries on the list are blocking a more tolerant approach to cannabis, according to Juan Fernandez of the London-based International Drug Policy Consortium.

“Ever since Canada enacted its legal regulation of cannabis, there has been a lot of pushback from traditionally reactionary countries at [the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs] — Russia, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Singapore — against any move to confer any legitimacy on cannabis,” he said.

And indeed, the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board’s latest annual report has spotlighted U.S. and Canadian medical cannabis laws for being “contrary to the international drug control treaties.”

But it looks like change may be on the way, with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommending that cannabis be rescheduled from Schedule IV, the strictest category, to Schedule I, the most lenient category (confusingly, the U.N. schedule order runs opposite that of the U.S. in terms of severity). The WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence’s report, released in January, also recommends the delisting of CBD from all U.N. treaties.

The recommendations had been expected for December, and their delay will likely mean that the Commission on Narcotic Drugs will put off any decision on cannabis rescheduling till 2020 at the earliest.

This obstacle hasn’t stopped cannabis legalization momentum, with Antigua and Mexico considering full legalization, and many other countries having already legalized medical marijuana and/or decriminalized cannabis use.

Here’s Where Cannabis Is Legal(ish)

Listed below are countries whose cannabis laws grant at least some degree of legality to the plant for medical or recreational use (or both):

Medical use legalized in 2017 – Decriminalized in 2009

While small amounts of cannabis have been decriminalized for personal use since 2009, it wasn’t until 2017 that a medical marijuana law was put on the books. The highlight? Qualified patients can get their supply for free.

Medical use legalized at federal level in 2016 – Partially decriminalized since 1993

Australia’s medical cannabis laws differ depending on the state that legalized it, with state laws in Victoria on the stricter end, only allowing its use in children with epilepsy, and states like Queensland holding fairly liberal laws.

In January 2018, the health minister endorsed medical cannabis growers exporting their product overseas — bolstering hopes that, if this idea comes to fruition, it will also mean medical cannabis will become more readily around Australia, too.

Decriminalized in 2018 – Medical use legalized in 2016

Though Bermuda’s Supreme Court legalized medical cannabis in November 2016, as of August 2018 only two doctors in the country had the authority to prescribe it. However, that doesn’t mean Bermuda has given up on expanding cannabis access: the country is now showing interest in legalizing cannabis for recreational use.

Recreational use legalized in 2018 – Medical use legalized in 2001

If you want to know what the future of cannabis legalization will hold, look to Canada. After years of promising, cannabis finally became completely legal in July 2018. The momentum started five years before, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was campaigning for leadership of the Liberal Party.

“I’m in favor of legalizing it,” Trudeau told supporters in early 2013. “Tax it, regulate. It’s one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids, because the current war on drugs, the current model is not working.”

Decriminalized in 2015 – Medical use legalized in 2014

In 2015, lawmakers signed a bill allowing Chileans to grow up to six plants per home for “medical, recreational, or spiritual reasons.” In 2015, the federal government legalized medical marijuana, and in 2017, pharmacies in Chile became the first in Latin America to stock medical cannabis products.

Recreational and medical use legalized in 2018

The cannabis policies of this Central Asian state, which became the first former Soviet republic to (kind of) legalize cannabis, can best be described as paradoxical. Although possession and consumption of cannabis was made legal in July 2018, cultivation and sale remain illegal.

Still, this is a big step forward for the ex-Soviet satellite, which had penalties on the books allowing for jail terms of up to 14 years. The move toward legalization also provides a buttress against nearby Russia’s draconian cannabis laws.

Medical use legalized in 2017

Though Germany’s police officers have recommended decriminalizing cannabis, and “small amounts” are generally not prosecuted under federal law, the country’s cannabis policies still leave a lot of worrisome wiggle room. For example, the authorities may suspend your driver’s license in the event of a cannabis-related arrest, whether or not you were using your car at the time of detection.

On the other hand, the European powerhouse recently decided to start growing its own medical cannabis and is currently processing applications from prospective growers.

Decriminalization slated for April 2019 – Medical use legalized in some capacities since 1990s

Israel balanced formerly rigid laws on recreational cannabis with a forward-looking approach to medical cannabis, starting with the identification of THC as its psychoactive component by Israeli researchers in 1964. Since then, the country’s medical cannabis R&D has been world-class, with researchers like Raphael Mechoulam making great contributions to the scientific community’s understanding of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system.

In January, Israel became the third country in the world to legalize the export of medical cannabis, following Canada and the Netherlands.

Medical use legalized in 2018 – Decriminalized in 2015 – Legal for members of the Rastafari faith

While cannabis has long been associated with Jamaican cultural touchstones like Rastafarianism and reggae music, cannabis was strictly banned in Jamaica for over 100 years, due to the colonial Ganja Law of 1913. When the rules were relaxed in 2015, they were loosened in a number of directions — decriminalizing possession of up to 2 ounces (56 grams), legalizing use for Rastafarian religious purposes, allowing personal cultivation, and opening the door to medical cannabis.

Nowadays, even tourists with medical cannabis prescriptions can buy at a local dispensary.

The Netherlands
Medical use legalized in 2003 – Decriminalized in 1976

Thanks to its famous cannabis cafes, the Netherlands are often thought of as cannabis’s safest haven — which, while partially true, doesn’t make it legal there. In 1972, the country rescheduled cannabis into its least dangerous category, making possession of less than 30 grams a misdemeanor. In 1976, the first of Amsterdam’s coffee shops opened up, providing easy and legitimate access to cannabis, and possession of 5 grams or less was decriminalized.

In 2003, pharmacies started to stock medical cannabis products. Today the country is one of three to export medical cannabis, and its prospects seem to be looking up as surrounding countries embrace reform.

New Zealand
Medical use legalized in 2018

While New Zealand has only just adopted medical cannabis, momentum seems to be gathering. In 2020, the country is set to hold a referendum on whether to legalize recreational cannabis — with polls mostly learning toward a ‘yes’ vote.

Medical use legalized in 2016

Despite long having been one of the harshest countries in Europe on cannabis, Norway is leading Scandinavia in a push toward ‘common sense’ cannabis law reform. As of now, possession of up to 15 grams is considered personal use, though it is still a punishable offense.

In 2018, the government commissioned a working group to prepare drug policy ahead of an intended decriminalization, and prepare police for the responsibility of “imposing health-related measures on drug addicts.”

Medical use legalized in 2017 – Decriminalized in 2003

Peru is another South American country trying to walk the line between compassionate cannabis policy and opposing drug traffickers. As a result, its cannabis policies are a mixed bag: while possession of up to eight grams of cannabis or two grams of its derivatives are legal for personal use, possession of over 100 grams is considered to be trafficking and punishable by an 8-15 year prison sentence.

In 2017, public opinion in favor of medical cannabis crested after an incident where police shut down a cannabis growing operation for children with epilepsy and other ailments. In wake of the following uproar, Peru’s Congress legalized medical cannabis by a vote of 68 to 5.

Medical use legalized in 2018 – Decriminalized in 2001

An early adopter of the cannabis trade following its seizure of the Indian state of Goa in 1510, Portugal decriminalized a “10-day supply” of cannabis along with all other banned substances in 2001 as part of the world’s most innovative drugs policy (which has drastically reduced crime, overdoses, and drug-related diseases). Possession of up to 25 grams isn’t subject to any penalties for a first-time offense, though subsequent charges could lead to civil penalties or mandated treatment.

In July 2018, Portugal legalized medical cannabis and a distribution network was established.

South Africa
Decriminalized and made legal for medical use in 2018

Even before the moral panic about cannabis that affected many countries around the world in the 1920s, South Africa went through many iterations of cannabis prohibition, based on a desire for trade leverage and concerns about the productivity of imported Indian labor.

That hasn’t stopped the country from being rated the fourth-largest cannabis producer in the world according to Interpol, or from developing a strong political voice in support of reform. In 2017, the pro-cannabis Dagga Party challenged the country’s constitution for the right to use cannabis, leading to a unanimous September 2018 ruling allowing for personal use and cultivation.

Medical use legalized in 2018

Though cannabis had been used as traditional medicine for centuries before being banned in the 1930s, trafficking in the plant complicated the country’s stance, leading to a lenient local prohibition juxtaposed with severe penalties for those caught in possession of large amounts. When the parliament approved the prescription of medical cannabis in December 2018, it became the first Southeast Asian country to legalize medical marijuana.

United Kingdom
Medical use legalized in 2018

The UK has a complicated history with cannabis prohibition, first due to hemp’s emergence as a cash crop in the 1500s, and later in its colonial bans of the substance in India, Mauritius, Singapore, Jamaica, and Sierra Leone throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Prohibition came to the UK itself in 1928, and the enforcement became more and then less stringent over the years. In 2014, cannabis possession accounted for 67 percent of all police recorded drug offenses; in 2015, several police departments said they would no longer be targeting those who use cannabis for private consumption.

As in other places, publicity around cases of epileptic children who benefit from medical cannabis provided a spur toward legalization in 2018. However, medical cannabis is still very restricted, with general practitioners unable to prescribe it, as the law only allows specialized consultants to do so. Despite this situation, the UK is the world’s largest exporter of legal cannabis, and UK-based GW Pharmaceuticals is behind the first cannabis-derived products to have gained widespread approval, Sativex and Epidiolex.

Fully legalized since 2013

In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the modern era to legalize cannabis. The country’s path to this goal was perhaps easier than most, as Uruguay had never criminalized personal possession of cannabis.

Uruguay has been taking it slow with implementation, and another factor has hampered results — a bank ban on pharmacies that dispense cannabis products, stemming from threat of international sanctions.

“We believed in our sovereignty and we didn’t take this factor into account,” Augusto Vitale, former president of the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis, said to El Pais. “We did not take into account the U.S. Terrorist Act or U.N. regulations.”

United States
Partially legalized for recreational use since 2012 – Partially legalized for medical use since 1996

The U.S. is an unusual case in the legalization landscape, with individual states leading pro-cannabis movements, and the federal government following begrudgingly along.

So far, use has been made recreationally legal in ten states, one territory, and Washington, D.C.. It’s been decriminalized in another 13 states and one territory; and been made medically legal in a total of 33 states, four territories, and D.C. Lawmakers have encouraged more cannabis research in recent years, and legislation has been introduced to legalize cannabis at the federal level.

Increasingly, legalization seems to be gathering bipartisan steam, with cannabis legalization becoming a key issue for 2020 presidential candidates. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66 percent of Americans support full legalization, making cannabis reform a winning strategy for any aspiring politico.

Ed Weinberg
Ed Weinberg
Ed Weinberg is an American journalist who’s written stories on everything from cannabis to textiles, architecture, urban exploration, and culture in Vietnam, where he spent seven years. Previous to freelance writing, he held senior editorial positions at Word Vietnam and the Vietnam Investment Review.

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