11th May 2021
Cannabis law reform is taking place across the world.
In 2018, Canada became the first major national economy to legalise and regulate the non-medical market (though Uruguay legalised five years earlier). As of today, 15 US states have also legalised, with more about to follow and the real prospect of federal reform under the MORE Act. In Mexico, the Government is committed to legalisation after its Supreme Court ruled that continuing prohibition was unconstitutional.
It will soon be possible to travel from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to the subtropical border between Mexico and Guatemala, and never enter a region where cannabis is illegal.
The momentous reforms underway in North America have tended to dominate media and political debate. But this transformation is far from limited to the Americas. Below we describe some of the reforms underway in the race to become Europe's first legal cannabis jurisdiction
Legalisation and regulation of non-medical production and sale
In September last year the Swiss Parliament amended their Federal drug law to allow local pilot trials of legal production and sale of cannabis for recreational purposes, with a view to providing ‘a scientific basis for the future regulation of cannabis’. These will come into force on May 15th. Each pilot can include up to 5,000 adult participants who will have access to a rationed volume of cannabis (with a 20% THC potency cap). Different Swiss Cantons will develop trials in different ways. Zurich and Basel, for example, have set out the boldest proposals, while Geneva is proposing a more modest cannabis social club experiment.
At the same time, a separate initiative to legalise adult-access non-medical cannabis more broadly (without the trials) is also progressing. Last week, the Health Committee of the Swiss National Council voted 13 votes to 11 in favour of the initiative. Depending on developments in the Netherlands (see below), Switzerland looks set to be the first country in Europe to make fully legalised cannabis production available for non-medical adult use.
This follows a long history of pioneering drug policy in Switzerland, which has had two national referendums on cannabis legalisation in the past (most recently in 2008), and has has allowed sales of high CBD (but <1% THC) cannabis for some years as well as introducing decriminalisation of cannabis for personal possession in 2012.
Legalisation and regulation of non-medical production and sale
In 2018, Luxembourg’s coalition government announced a plan to legalise and regulate cannabis production and sale for non-medical adult use - becoming the first European country to put in train such reforms. The move was spurred by the youth wings of the respective parties. In 2019, the Health minister Etienne Schneider said “This drug policy we had over the last 50 years did not work,” and that “Forbidding everything made it just more interesting to young people … I’m hoping all of us will get a more open-minded attitude toward drugs.”
Detailed plans for the reform (on which Transform served as expert consultants) were due to go to the parliament in 2019, but have been put on hold due to the pandemic. However, the new Minister of Health, Paulette Lenert, confirmed this February that the policy was “ongoing” and that "intensive" exchanges between the ministries had taken place and the project had been "completed" and "optimised". Media reports of draft plans suggest that retail access will be limited to adult Luxembourg residents, with 14 retail outlets serving the country. There will be a 30g per month purchase limit, no limits on levels of THC (but taxation used to encourage lower potency use), and bans on advertising, internet sales and home deliveries.
Decriminalisation, home growing for personal use, expungement
Following the Maltese Labour Party’s victory in the 2017 General Election (on which it ran on a broad cannabis reform platform), it has embarked on a somewhat different path to the formal markets being developed in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. A Government white paper published this March includes proposals to extend decriminalisation of cannabis possession, expunge criminal records, and permit home growing of up to four plants per household.
The White Paper follows the report of a Government-convened 2017 technical committee, which involved extensive research and consultation (Transform was pleased to support the submission of Malta’s cannabis reform NGO, Releaf). The White Paper is the basis of a national consultation that will inform next steps but it is clear that the government is interested in reform - and there are strong indications that the proposed reforms are likely to be a transitional step to a legally regulated market in the future.
Trial legal supply to the cannabis coffee shops
Although cannabis sales from Dutch ‘coffee shops’ have famously been permitted since the mid 1970s, they have operated in a somewhat bizarre legal space. While coffee shop sales are licensed, cannabis has never actually been legalised. Instead, the sales, possession and use takes place under a formal tolerance, or gedoogbeleid, policy. The coffee shops are, however, still supplied from an illegal market, with all its associated problems (lack of regulation, associations with organised crime, and so on), a situation long referred to as the Dutch ‘back door’ paradox.
Many attempts - mostly at the local/municipal level - to resolve what Dutch policy makers widely acknowledge is an absurd situation finally led, in 2017, to a national plan passed by parliament to license the production of cannabis - at least on a limited trial basis - to supply the coffee shops.
The ‘Wet Gesloten Coffeeshopketen’ (‘Closed Coffeeshop Circuit Act’), would allow commercial cannabis growers operating under strict conditions to be exempted from prosecution. This proposal was adopted by a narrow 77 - 73 majority, though debates continue over the details. However, the recommendations of a government appointed expert committee have now set out a concrete process - with 10 provisional production licenses being issued.
Political wrangling has left further progress uncertain, but if all parties stick to their election programmes then the law should be passed in a matter of weeks.
Parliamentary committee recommends legalisation and regulation
A group of French MPs have called for cannabis to be legalised and regulated for non-medical adult use in a new report from a committee of the National Assembly. France has amongst the highest levels of cannabis use in Europe, but also some of the harshest drug law enforcement - so this represents a groundbreaking challenge to France’s entrenched approach.
The report was compiled following a year long consultation process (including an evidence session with Transform, LEAP and Volteface) and provides a withering critique of the costly failings of France’s drug enforcement model, concluding that legalisation would ‘take back control’ from traffickers and protect young people.
While still at an early stage the report represents a sea change in the national debate and sets the stage for further change out across the continent.
Changes across the Americas and Europe shows that reform is not only possible, but is happening right now. Beyond North America and Europe reform is also progressing; in the Australian Capital Territory (decriminalisation and home growing); South Africa (decriminalisation and home growing); a number of Caribbean states (mostly for religious and medical use); and Israel (fully regulated market).
Governments clearly no longer feel trapped by either history or convention into continuing cannabis prohibition, and as legal regulation is more widely established we are learning more about how to get it right. As the mainstream debate moves from if to how we regulate cannabis, Transform continues to develop guidance on how to do so effectively and fairly.
The third edition of How to regulate cannabis: A practical guide will be published this summer, including new sections exploring social equity programmes. You can read an excerpt here, and more will be released in the coming weeks.
Header Image: "Cannabis" by amian84 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.