Regulating the production and sale of marijuana: A global perspective

The decisions by Colorado and Washington State to legalize the sale of marijuana have set off a wave of speculation about the local, national and international implications. Experts note that even the Netherlands, long known for its permissive culture of marijuana use, has not gone as far as these two states, which have opened up commercial sales to the market with relatively little restriction. These changes are substantial in many ways: Research has suggested that in 2013 alone, when Washington had just decriminalized marijuana — and before commercial sales were permitted — as much as 225 metric tons of cannabis was consumed there. By comparison, somewhere between 50 and 150 metric tons of marijuana is sold in the Netherlands annually.

Some worry about the effects on young people of widespread commercial availability. “Instead of starting with an approach that lent itself more easily to public health protections,” writes Beau Kilmer of the RAND Corporation, “voters in Colorado and Washington jumped right to a market model similar to alcohol.” While scientific research is advancing our understanding of the health risks of marijuana use, randomized control trials — the gold standard of academic research — have yet to be conducted at a scale that would answer every question and concern.

However things play out in Colorado and Washington, it’s evident that the global status quo on the prohibition of the production and sale of marijuana is becoming more unsettled. The recent legal shifts by the United States and Uruguay — it approved the cultivation and sale of marijuana in December 2013 — have been criticized by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board. Applicable international laws include the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an amended 1972 version of that convention, and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Nearly all countries are signatories to these conventions and have agreed to punish citizens who violate these principles.

A December 2013 report from RAND, a non-partisan research center, sheds light on how other countries have grappled with marijuana legalization or decriminalization policies. The report, “Multinational Overview of Cannabis Production Regimes” — authored by Kilmer, Kristy Kruithof, Mafalda Pardal, Jonathan P. Caulkins and Jennifer Rubin — looks at case studies in Spain, Belgium and Uruguay, as well as the United States. “While the international treaties related to cannabis have not changed in nearly 25 years, laws and policies pertaining to cannabis have changed in some countries, especially at the state or regional level,” they write. “A number of jurisdictions have reduced their penalties for possessing cannabis for personal use, making the maximum penalty a fine and/or participation in some type of diversion program or community sentence.”

The report’s findings include:

  • Uruguay is the example most parallel to the new scenarios in Colorado and Washington: “Under Uruguayan law, consumption and possession ‘of a reasonable amount of drugs’ for personal use is not penalized.” However, Uruguay is the only country to enact such legal changes at the national level. Statements by government officials there about their obligations to international treaties indicate that Uruguay has chosen to “revise” these existing global rules and pursue an “alternative” framework. (The issue of international law is a complex one that hinges on interpretations of federated systems of government, where regional and local changes may occur, versus national policies.)
  • Belgium and Spain have so far only permitted distribution through “cannabis clubs.” In Belgium, cannabis production is not allowed by law. However, officials have formally put forward law enforcement guidelines that de-emphasize marijuana possession as a crime; they have given it the “lowest possible priority” in terms of prosecution “for possession of up to three grams of cannabis or one cultivated cannabis plant.” Still, members of marijuana organizations have been involved in litigation in recent years.
  • Spain has had a slightly different legal experience: “Following several Supreme Court rulings, the possession and consumption of cannabis is no longer considered a criminal offense, and the jurisprudence in the field has tended to interpret the existing legislation in a way that permits ‘shared consumption’ and cultivation for personal use when grown in a private place. While there is no additional legislation or regulation defining the scale or particulars under which cultivation could be permitted, the Cannabis Social Club (CSC) movement has sought to explore this legal space, reasoning that if one is allowed to cultivate cannabis for personal use and if ‘shared consumption’ is allowed, then one should also be able to do this in a collective manner. In this context, hundreds of CSCs have been established over the past 15 years, but legal uncertainty around the issue of production continues and has led to the seizure of cannabis crops and to the arrest of some CSC members.”
  • As for the legal shifts and international treaty obligations of the United States, the authors note: “In the U.S. there has been very little official discussion about how legalizing the recreational cannabis industry in two states and the subsequent federal response fit or fail to fit within the U.N. drug conventions. After the voters passed the propositions, U.S. Attorney General Holder initially stated that he would consider the ‘international obligations’ when crafting a response. However, neither the subsequent memo from U.S. Deputy [Attorney General] Cole, which described the federal position, nor Cole’s official testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about cannabis policy in September 2013 mentioned the international conventions.”

The authors also look at places where medical or scientific use is permitted to varying degrees — such countries include Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland — or where “proposals for recreational use have been (or will be) submitted,” including in Chile, Denmark, Portugal and Switzerland.

A 2010 RAND report on the Netherlands, “What Can We Learn from the Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshop Experience?” notes that since 1976 the Netherlands has operated under a “formal written policy of non-enforcement for violations involving possession or sale of up to 30 grams of cannabis.” As of 2010, there were about “700 retail cannabis outlets in the Netherlands — about one per 29,000 citizens (one per 3000 in Amsterdam).” The industry “employs 3,400 workers … and the owners have their own union….  They sell somewhere between 50 and 150 metric tons of cannabis at a value of perhaps 300 to 600 million euros a year.”

Keywords: drugs, marijuana

This article first appeared on Journalist’s Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.