Americans seem to have a persistent notion of what marijuana policies look like around the world.
The vision sold by Hollywood and globe-trotting backpackers is of people free to get high by the canals of liberal Amsterdam, or on the beaches of laid-back Jamaica, while anyone caught with a joint in Phuket risks landing in a Thai prison for life.
But none of these notions really ring true. Around the world, cannabis policies are evolving as quickly — if in different ways — as they are in the United States.
“When I started here five years ago, there wasn’t a single jurisdiction in the world that had legal marijuana,” said Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager with Drug Policy Alliance, whose action group backed California’s cannabis initiative in November.
A few regions have long tolerated limited recreational consumption, such as the Dutch city of Amsterdam, where pot is sold in some coffee houses without police interference, and Spain which is home to a growing cannabis social club scene. But just half a decade ago, no country or jurisdiction had actually legalized weed.
Domestically that changed in 2012, when Colorado and Washington voted in recreational marijuana. Since then, six more states – including California – have since followed suit, with 28 states now permitting medical marijuana.
Given our country’s key role in the international war on drugs, the rise of legalization domestically is, in the view of some, ironic. And Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says that while cannabis remains illegal federally (and a crackdown on state laws might yet be coming from the Trump administration) the U.S. now leads the world when it comes to “designing and implementing innovative cannabis regulation policies.”
California in particular broke new ground with the Nov. 8 passage of Proposition 64. Nadelmann said it is the first legalization initiative to incorporate a number of social justice components, such as removing criminal penalties for most marijuana-related crimes and dedicating tax revenues to communities hard-hit by the war on drugs.
Yu-Wei Luke Chu, an economics professor in New Zealand who studies marijuana polices, said his country is taking steps toward legalizing medical cannabis and, as part of that process, is following legalization experiments in the United States.
But even as the U.S. paves the way, marijuana policies are shifting rapidly in places as diverse as Canada, Israel and Morocco.
Uruguay shocked the world in 2013 when it became the first country to fully legalize cannabis, Nadelmann said. Two years later, Jamaica passed a bill decriminalizing up to two ounces of marijuana. And countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, from Chile to Colombia to Puerto Rico, now are looking to permit medical marijuana and remove criminal penalties for adults who use it recreationally.
Weedmaps, an Irvine-based company that maps and rates marijuana dispensaries, now has offices in Barcelona, Toronto and Berlin, where Germany’s newly approved medical marijuana program slated to roll out in March.
There are a handful of places where marijuana policies are moving the opposite direction, Hetzer noted, such as the Philippine government’s brutal crusade against anyone who consumes cannabis or harder drugs. But other regions of both Asia and Africa are considering loosening their harsh stances, she said, including Thailand and Ghana.
“We are definitely a world away from where we were five years ago,” Hetzer said. “And I think we will only continue to see marijuana reform… pick up steam.”
Here’s a quick look at six countries (aside from the United States) with marijuana policies worth noting:
Israel: Since legalizing medical marijuana in 1992, Israel has become the global leader in cannabis research. Israel’s Ministry of Health treats tens of thousands of patients with medical cannabis.
Recently, the Israeli government took steps to decriminalize recreational marijuana, with minor possession likely to soon result in fines rather than criminal records.
Canada: Our neighbor to the north has run a federal medical cannabis program for more than a decade. And in 2016, the courts upheld patients’ right to grow cannabis at home, finding that a federal proposal to limit patients’ rights was not “in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he plans to make good on his campaign promise to also legalize recreational marijuana throughout the country, probably within the next 24 months.
“Justin Trudeau was I think, more or less, the first national political candidate to run (and win) on a campaign platform that included legalizing marijuana,” Nadelmann said. “I think it’s going to represent a major step forward.”
Uruguay: While American legalization schemes (with the exception of Washington, D.C.) have created robust commercial markets aimed at generating new tax revenue, Uruguay went the opposite direction when it legalized marijuana in 2013. Hetzer, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the South American nation’s policy is all about fighting organized crime. That’s why Uruguay committed to making legal cannabis cheap enough (about $1 a gram) to match black market prices.
The country has been “remarkably slow” in actually rolling out their cannabis program, Nadelmann noted. But he said they haven’t shown signs of backing down from their commitment to eventually make it happen.
Australia: A year ago, the land down under became the first continent to legalize recreational marijuana. Regulators since then have been working on details of how that program will work.
On Feb. 22, Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that imported medical marijuana will be made available to patients within weeks.
The Netherlands: Since it’s home to the marijuana tourist mecca of Amsterdam, many people have long believed that marijuana is legal in The Netherlands. But the government actually just tolerates recreational consumption in so-called coffee shops, with no legal way for people to cultivate and sell cannabis to those businesses.
That appears poised to change. This month, Dutch lawmakers voted to permit cultivation.
“It now looks quite possible that The Netherlands may formally move towards legalization next year,” Nadelmann said. “Some very smart people are betting 50-50 that the Dutch would finally get past the backdoor issue and actually move toward full legalization.”
Mexico: If Canada does legalize cannabis this year or next, Mexico will be the last country in North America with no legal pot laws. But Mexican leaders have taken steps recently toward legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing recreational pot. President Enrique Peña Nieto spoke about the limited benefits of prohibition during a 2016 United Nations drug summit.
Public support still isn’t behind legal weed in Mexico, Nadelmann noted. It’s shot up from just 7 percent a decade ago to around 37 percent today.
Tough on pot
Some countries where marijuana remains illegal in at least some cases:
Japan: Possession for recreational use illegal; punishment up to 5 years in prison.
Malaysia: Possession of 7 ounces or more punishable by death.
Nigeria: Possession illegal; up to 12 years in prison for personal use and up to life in prison for trafficking.
Saudi Arabia: Possession for recreational use illegal and punishable by six months or more in jail; possession for sale can result in execution.
United Arab Emirates: Possession illegal; punishment up to 4 years in prison.
Sources: JapanToday; Centre for Research and Information on Substance Abuse; United Nations.