So far, Uruguay is the only country in world to legalise cannabis on a national level. Everywhere else that you can buy cannabis or hashish without much fuss, there is a catch. Sales are either simply tolerated, as in the Netherlands and Spain, or they are only permitted for medical reasons, as in some US states, Jamaica or Germany. Elsewhere, there are geographical limits to legality within the state, as in Colorado and the other eight US states plus Washington D.C., where the forbidden plant was once again legalised by popular vote for recreation, after almost 100 years of being banned.
Uruguay did not prepare
Taking a look at South America, however, clearly shows, that, almost four years after legalisation, the circumstances in Uruguay do not really provide an example that other countries with similar intentions should follow:
– So far, smokers in Uruguay have no way of buying cannabis legally. The media in Uruguay recently reported that a sales system through pharmacies could be put in place across the country this summer, but this is far from being the first announcement of its kind; this was also supposed to start in both 2015 and 2016.
– More than 60% of the buds consumed in Uruguay are still illegally smuggled into the country from Paraguay
– Because of its clouded legally status (growing cannabis privately and providing it to friends for consumption is legal, but commercial buds are still illegal), a huge grey area has arisen where a lot of untaxed money is being made from cannabis. In Uruguay, legalisation was introduced for political reasons, to be the first country to stand up against the war on drugs. Unfortunately, former president Mujica had not thought through the short-term implications that the unconsidered and rather rushed legalisation brought with it. This small country, sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, will go down in history as the first country to legalise cannabis, but it will not be the first country to have a properly functional regulation model in place.
Colorado, Washington, Oregon & Co. are not good examples
In the US states where cannabis is already legalised, excellent regulatory systems have been created in most cases. Most of them already had experience with a medicinal cannabis programme, which they could call on as part of the re-legalisation in order to regulate the forbidden plant for recreational purposes too. These programmes included aspects such as quality control, transparent labelling, protection for young people and children, prevention, and many economic aspects, including of course the tax revenues that a new market like this obviously creates.
But in the eight US states and Washington D.C., there are other problems to deal with. As cannabis is still a “Schedule 1” drug under US federal law, producers, sellers and customers need to continue to be careful:
– The US Banking law is a federal law. So far, all transactions have had to be carried out in cash. For shops, having so much cash on hand is an increased security risk.
– In places that are regarded as US federal territory, cannabis continues to be illegal. This includes airports, stations, many official offices, some motorways and many other areas that are a part of public life.
– Because even medicinal cannabis infringes US federal law, US producers can only trade to a very limited extent, while their colleagues in Canada, the Netherlands and Israel are already exporting buds and expertise abroad. This seems to be impossible for the US, even in the medium term.
No matter how well local regulations deal with future plans and sustainability, the federal ban on cannabis prevents any progress at a national level. There is no legal certainty, as well as a huge grey area that scares off both investors and entrepreneurs, and this is why the US is not a good example for regulation.
Spain and the Netherlands are acting half-heartedly
The models of these two countries are very different in their approaches. Cannabis Social Clubs are tolerated under the Spanish narcotics law because of their private nature. In the Netherlands, the coffeeshops that buy their products illegally are tolerated; they are a compromise resulting from 40 years of half-hearted application of the liberal drugs policy that the Netherlands embraced – until 15 years ago.
What both models have in common is that the goods are only tolerated at the point of sale. In the Netherlands, cannabis officially just flies from heaven onto the shop counter; in Spain, cannabis may not be brought into the shop nor grown there, so it therefore must also be of heavenly origin. Collective cultivation by the Clubs is tolerated on private land, but as soon as the harvest is to be transported to the club’s premises, it is open season for drug squad police. After all, whatever the position of the maybe legal – maybe not – Clubs, transportation is definitely illegal, because it takes place on a public highway.
This is why neither Spain nor the Netherlands are really good examples, but both models could well be extended, because both coffeeshops and Clubs usually supply good product at moderate prices, provide protection for young people and act preventively, and pay taxes. However, in both countries, the attempts to tolerate consumption and small-scale sales fail because they do not include any supplier, producer or any of the parties involved.
As soon as politicians want to move forward, in each country the existing, nation-wide infrastructure of Clubs and shops could be used as a foundation. Almost all of them adhere to self-imposed rules relating to the protection of young people and consumers, which would need to be formalised in legislation in the future.
It works in North Korea without any rules
Most likely, most Koreans do not even know that they are smoking an internationally banned plant, or that the most commonly consumed illegal substance in the Western world is being sold in bunches for next to nothing at their markets. Even if it is rare for North Korea to take on the role of setting an example we could learn from, its inhabitants deal with cannabis in a relaxed way. But as a regulatory model, selling cannabis at a local street market is not very suitable and politically unacceptable.
The same is true of other models in regions such as Northern Morocco, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Hindukush and anywhere else in the world where cannabis is grown and traded due to its cultural status, despite being banned. This type of regulation, wherever it is found, provides fertile ground for official corruption.
Canada seems well prepared
Trudeau’s government is already far enough forward with plans for legalisation that they have set the date, 1 July 2018, for the re-legalisation of cannabis. In Canada, a committee has been working since 2016 on a legal framework that will organise the transition from “illegal” to “legal” as painlessly as possible. This allowed concerns to be dealt with, critics to be heard, and their objections and special requests to be taken into account. It also made it possible to involve all parties in the difficult process. In addition, the government has announced that it will bring the new legislation in line with the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. So far, neither Uruguay nor the US states where cannabis is already legal have managed to do this and as such, both countries have been censured by the UN.
If Canada legalises cannabis in 2018, then there will likely be very few open questions, thanks to the years spent on preparation. Countries looking for an example to follow at the international level should follow Canada’s lead in relation to cannabis. Without a doubt, legalisation is a question of being sensible. It does not work if it proceeds half-heartedly (as in the Netherlands and Spain) or as a snap decision (as in Uruguay). Legalisation requires a global perspective and common sense.