Cannabis legislation in Europe

An overview
Brendan Hughes
March 2017

cannabis legalisation europeAt a time of increased debate on the laws controlling the use of cannabis in the European Union, this report answers some of the questions most often asked about cannabis legislation. Using a question and answer format, basic definitions and the obligations of countries under international law are set out in a section on ‘What is cannabis and what are countries’ obligations to control it?‘ Two following sections examine the links and disparities between the content of the laws and their guidelines on the one hand and the actual implementation of the laws on the other. The final question and answer section considers whether changes in law have affected cannabis use and how much public support for legal change exists, as it looks at the future direction of cannabis legislation in Europe.

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A renewed debate about the laws prohibiting or permitting cannabis use and supply around the world has been fuelled by the legalisation of supply and use of cannabis for ‘recreational’ purposes in some US states and Uruguay since 2012. Proposals to legalise the drug have raised concerns they may lead to increases in cannabis use and related harms, and questions about the ways in which cannabis for non-medical purposes could be regulated to mitigate these concerns. In the European Union, a system of limited distribution has evolved in the Netherlands since the 1970s, and this has seen further developments in the last few years. The advantages and disadvantages of these regulated systems are being closely observed.

The model of ‘cannabis social clubs’ has been increasingly mentioned in drug policy debates. Its advocates argue that the decision to not prosecute individuals for cannabis use in some countries can also be applied to registered groups of individuals, in order to permit a closed system of cannabis production and distribution. At present, the model is rejected by national authorities in Europe.

Throughout Europe there is media and public discourse on the issue of changing cannabis laws. However, national administrations are concerned about the public health impact of cannabis use and generally oppose the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis for recreational use. Nonetheless, cannabis laws and the medical and scientific research that informs policy-making can be regarded as entering a period of change, the direction of which is still unclear.