- In Germany, Italy, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands the use of cannabis for therapeutic use is already permitted, although its recreational use is still largely curtailed.
- Although some European countries have made more progress towards normalising cannabis use in all areas, progress has been very slow.
- Here we take a look at the state of things in the most permissive states, and those not considered candidates to fully legalise cannabis in the coming years.
In the last US elections a number of states passed laws allowing cannabis use: four of them for recreational use, and another three for therapeutic purposes. Across the pond, however, the Old Continent seems almost unfazed by the progress being made in the American giant. In Europe developments with regards to cannabis regulation continue to be sluggish. Fortunately, however, this year we have seen some changes, and others are on the horizon.
Before addressing the issue in Europe it is necessary, however, to draw a distinction between the concepts of "legalisation" and "decriminalisation." The former refers to people being able to grow and use cannabis without breaking the law, which means that the state can regulate its distribution. Thus, as with tobacco or alcohol, the government can apply taxes, place restrictions on who grows it, and how much, and limit its use in certain areas.
In the case of decriminalisation, on the other hand, cannabis is still considered illegal, but not a criminal act. That is, people discovered engaging in this activity do not receive jail time, though they can be subject to heavy fines, community service, or civil charges. Under this status the government cannot regulate production or distribution. Although this step is often seen as a prelude to legalisation, the situation is fraught with uncertainty, as citizens and law enforcement officials act according to their own interpretations and ideas, without the path to follow being clear.
Holland and Germany
The first name that usually pops up when speaking of consumption in Europe is Holland, one of the most advanced countries in the regulatory field and most likely to first enact full legalisation. Within its borders medical cannabis is legal, as is the possession of up to six grams for consumption at its "coffeeshops," where sales are allowed provided they have the appropriate license. Outside these establishments, having the same amount, in any situation, and growing up to five plants are decriminalised activities.
Holland is not the only European country that accepts its use to relieve the symptoms of different pathologies, with the conditions varying between states.
In May Germany approved a law to legalise medical use, which will go into effect next year. As for other activities, while cannabis possession continues to be illegal, consumption for personal use is permitted as long as it is not considered physically hazardous.
Belgian adults may possess up to three grams of cannabis and cultivate one plant on private property, but the plant's sale and transport are still considered illegal. Medical marijuana is considered legal in Belgium in the case of some medicines containing the active ingredients of the plant to treat cancer, AIDS and chronic pain. However, the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products (FAMHP) has already received an order to permit the establishment of a huge R&D centre in the municipality of Kinrooi, in the Province of Limburg, to conduct research on a large-scale into medical cannabis. If this research centre can be established, it will generate approximately 500 to 800 new jobs and stand as a landmark facility for all Europe.
Some consider the small European country the "New Amsterdam," due to its regulatory positions. Since its independence in 1993, the Czech government has been modifying the legislative terms governing cannabis: at first possession for personal use was considered legal, but not the "intent to sell." In the late 90s the State decided that it had to impose an upper limit, so it criminalised the possession of "large quantities."
It was not until 2010 when regulators finally set the maximums allowed: 15 grams of cannabis for consumption, and up to 5 cultivated plants. Three years later the Executive took another step, with the legalisation of therapeutic cannabis, although the situation turned out not to benefit patients very much, as only some doctors can prescribe it, in some very specific cases, and it is very expensive for patients.
However, gradual progress towards the legalisation of different uses makes the young country a good candidate to be first in the class.
The latest regulation, passed in 2012, decriminalises the possession of small amounts of cannabis, and the Swiss can grow up to four plants per person. Those possessing over 10 grams can be fined 80 euros, but they won't face any legal proceedings.
For now there are no plans to increase permissiveness or legalise consumption, but the Swiss Government's neutral attitude and the scarcity of problems related to the cannabis sector create a climate conducive to progress in this direction.
Portugal is considered one of the most progressive countries when it comes to cannabis legislation. In 2001 our neighbour decriminalised its use, and obligated consumers who overconsume to undergo treatment instead of sending them to prison. Under this measure the Portuguese can possess up to 25 grams of the plant, and 2.5 of cannabis oil.
Since January of this year, when Lisbon implemented this measure, growers have been able to acquire licenses to produce cannabis for medical use or research, in limited quantities and under certain conditions. Crops that do not have these permissions remain illegal, but the progress compared to previous years is considerable.
The general situation in our country is not very promising, but it is not as negative as it may seem to us at times. The sale and transport of cannabis are considered a criminal offence (punishable with jail time), while consumption in public places is punishable by a fine and confiscation. Consumption and cultivation for personal use, however, are considered legal.
In the clinical setting, although some doctors recommend its use, off the record, patients who decide to use grass to alleviate the symptoms of their diseases technically do so subject to the same laws as those practicing recreational use.
Aside from these conditions, there exist in our country a multitude of regulatory loopholes and ambiguous situations regarding the legality of the activities, such as the case of cannabis clubs. Variations between communities also constitute a serious impediment to achieving a situation of total control throughout the country.
The most reticent
In Estonia, by the Baltic Sea, possessing small amounts (up to 7.5 grams) is not considered a crime, although it is to sell, transport or cultivate it. While the government, theoretically, allows the use of medical cannabis, only one patient has managed to obtain a prescription since 2005.
A little further south, in Italy, weed lovers are face a similarly ambiguous situation. The use of cannabis for medical purposes and industrial production is legal, but with severe restrictions. Its cultivation and sale, meanwhile, are illegal practices, while possession has been decriminalised (but may involve fines or the temporary suspension of passports or driving licenses).
In Malta, possession is considered an offence that can result in one's arrest, although the possession of small amounts for personal use is decriminalised, as is the case in Slovenia. Further east, in Ukraine, consumption is also decriminalised, such that possessing and having up to 5 grams of grass, and growing up to 10 plants, is not punishable by law, but neither is it legal.
France, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia, meanwhile, do not allow cannabis cultivation, sale or consumption in their territories – even though the latter is one of the largest producers in Europe. In the north – Finland, Ireland and the United Kingdom – any kind of consumption is considered illegal.
As 2016 winds to an end, we can be sure that we will not see any European country enact the global legalisation of cannabis within its borders, nor advance much more than they have done over the past few months. However, 2017 and the coming years may still bring us some interesting surprises. It's time to place your bets as to which European state will be the first to regulate the entire cannabis sector.