Marijuana in Europe

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By Joe Chivers

Decriminalization of medical marijuana is a hotly contested topic around the world. While in the United States, 29 states have legalized the drug for this purpose, in other regions, it isn’t so clear cut. Europe, as a rule, is complicated. Its many and varied countries have, over hundreds of years, each come up with their own laws regarding marijuana. Some, like Spain and the Netherlands, are more liberal. Others, like the United Kingdom and Sweden, are decidedly not. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the legality of, and the campaign for, medical marijuana in Europe.

Everyone with an interest in drug law will know that the Netherlands and Portugal have decriminalized drugs to a certain extent. The Czech Republic too, has decriminalized drug possession, and legalized medical marijuana. Since 2013, Czech patients have been prescribed pot by their doctors, with a limit of 180g per month. In other countries across the continent, the law is a little more hazy. In Germany, while cannabis is still illegal for recreational use, medicinal use has been legal since 2016. It is, however, tightly regulated. Only those who are “seriously ill,” whose doctors believe they will benefit from it, can be prescribed it. Serious illnesses in this context include multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, and appetite loss or nausea from chemotherapy. While it could be slightly less restrictive, it is still a step in the right direction. In neighbouring Austria, a country with fairly liberal laws on personal drug use, medical weed has been legal since 2008. In Italy to the south, and Denmark and Finland to the North, medicinal use of marijuana is legal too, to varying extents. In Spain, marijuana use in your own home is perfectly legal and has been ever since democratization, while the region of Catalonia has legalized the sale and use of marijuana. Even Poland, famed for the right-wing authoritarianism of its government, has legalized it for medical purposes.

However, it is important not to paint a picture of all of Europe as a liberal wonderland, where everyone can get the medicine they need with no issues. As mentioned earlier, even in countries where it is legal, it is strictly regulated. Nowhere in Europe is getting medical marijuana easy. Only in areas where it is legal (or at least, de facto legal) such as Catalonia and the Netherlands, is sourcing high quality pot a simple task. Add to this the fact that there are still a large number of European countries where marijuana is completely illegal. Among these are the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Lithuania, Macedonia, and Sweden. Obviously, in this one-off article, we do not have the time to go over all of these nations’ laws. As such, we will focus on the United Kingdom. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. It is a nation with attitudes and a legal system very close to the United States.
  2. It has some of the most regressive drug laws in Europe.
  3. This writer is from the UK, and as such, can speak from experience.

The United Kingdom’s laws on marijuana have been essentially unchanged since 1971. For the record, let us look at what has changed in the world since then: Nixon was impeached, the Soviet Union collapsed, the UK and U.S. have fought in Iraq twice, and humanity set foot on the Moon for the last time to date, to name but a few. Regardless of these near 50 years of change, the laws have barely budged an inch. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Cannabis is listed under British law as a Class B drug. Under this, those caught in possession of pot can be sentenced to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. For one brief, forward-thinking period in the 2000s, the drug was moved down to a Class C, seen by some as a potential stepping stone towards decriminalization, but it has since returned to Class B. It should be mentioned at this point, that the enforcement of this law varies dramatically depending on sociological privilege and race. According to the British organization Release that provides legal aid for those charged with drug possession, black people are 5 times more likely to be charged for possession of marijuana.  This disparity is fairly evident across the country, with white people generally extremely unlikely to be arrested for possession of marijuana. As you may imagine, such a disparity in enforcement causes justified discontent, as do other problems of prohibition, such as a lack of product purity. One need only look at the epidemic of low-quality ‘soapbar’ hash in the UK to recognize just how serious an issue this is.

As such, a decriminalization movement has been gradually building up a head of steam in the past few years. As well as mass smokeouts in London’s Hyde Park on 4/20, other efforts are also being put forth. The British government has a petition system, where if a petition receives 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for a debate in Parliament. A petition to “make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal” was submitted to and debated by the Conservative government of 2015-17. However, the debate related in a fairly predictable response, with the government stating “substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health. There are no plans to legalise cannabis as it would not address the harm to individuals and communities.”

Despite the seemingly large public support for it, only the smallest of the three main parties in the UK, the Liberal Democrats, have pledged to legalize marijuana. The Conservative government has consistently rejected any such proposals, while the socialist Labour party are in favour only of medical marijuana.

It is curious that drug law tends to be an area where Europe, often held up in America as a bastion of liberal ideas, lags behind its transatlantic cousin. Despite there being no real widespread war on drugs in Europe, there are only a handful of nations and territories where marijuana can be legally bought from a store or dispensary. With worldwide recognition of the healing (or at least, non-harmful) properties of marijuana seeming to spread by the day, one can hope that it will not be too long before it is fully legalized in more European nations.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.