law and Cannabis

The Law and Cannabis: The Changing Global Context

Global bans on ganja

The first recorded law proscribing the use of ganja was promulgated in 1378 by Soudoun Sheikouni, the Emir of the Joneima in Arabia (Johnson, 2010). Since then, there have been scores of laws across multiple jurisdictions worldwide prohibiting use of the plant. In the last century, most of the legislation banning or controlling the use of ganja has been based on rules set out in United Nations’ treaties, of which three are currently in force. They are the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Ganja was first banned at the global level in 1925, when the League of Nations 1925 signed the revised International Opium Convention. This convention was the first to treat ganja as a prohibited drug. Decades later, when the United Nations (UN) replaced the League of Nations, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was signed and came into effect, replacing the 1933 Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs. Ratified by 73 countries, the new convention classified ganja as a Schedule I narcotic drug. As a Schedule I drug, ganja was considered an addictive substance with a serious risk of abuse. Prohibitions were thus placed on its cultivation and supply, except under licence for specific purposes such as medicine and research. Article 28 also made an exception for “the cultivation of the cannabis plant exclusively for industrial purposes (fibre and seed) or horticultural purposes.”

Declassification, legalisation and decriminalisation of ganja

By 2018, 186 states, with the exception of Chad, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, South Sudan, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, had signed on to the Single Convention. However, in 2019, the World Health Organisation recommended a declassification of ganja. This recommendation was followed through in 2020, and the UN as a whole partially declassified ganja. This was the culmination of years of lobbying by various national and international groups. Declassification now aligns with the decriminalisation or legalisation practices started by many national and subnational jurisdictions in recent decades.

In jurisdictions where ganja has been decriminalised, personal recreational use of the plant and its derivatives no longer carries criminal penalties, namely imprisonment and a criminal record. For countries that have decriminalised ganja use, such as Jamaica, recreational use of the plant still carries legal sanctions. However, this, instead, is classified as a minor offence. It must be borne in mind that other offences such as trading and trafficking of ganja still carry, depending on the jurisdiction, severe criminal penalties. By contrast, in parts of Asia and the Middle East, possession of any quantity of ganja carries harsh prison terms.

Legalisation of ganja means that people reaching the age of majority are able to use the plant and its derivatives for recreational or therapeutic purposes, and purchase it from licensed suppliers. In this regard, ganja is treated in a similar manner to cigarettes or alcohol, with restrictions on sales and purchased being determined by age, location and licensing requirements for suppliers. In terms of the legalisation of the recreational use of ganja, the following are the countries that have taken the step: Canada, Georgia, South Africa, and Uruguay. Both Canada and Uruguay allow the commercial sale of ganja. In the United States of America, while use for any purpose is illegal at the federal level, 17 states, the District of Columbia, and 2 territories have legalised recreational use of the plant. In Australia, ganja has been legalised in the Australian Capital Territory.

Medical use of ganja is permitted in Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Johnson, B. A. (10 October 2010). Addiction Medicine: Science and Practice. Springer Science & Business Media.

Important International Ganja Legislative Timeline: 20th Century to Present

1913: Jamaica bans ganja use under the Ganja Law

1914: British East Africa Protectorate bans cannabis

1920: Sierra Leone ban cannabis

1920: Mexico bans the cultivation, sale, and recreational use of cannabis

1922: South Africa bans cannabis under Customs and Excises Duty Act

1923: Canada bans cannabis

1923: Panama bans ganja cultivation and use

1924: Sudan bans ganja cultivation and use

1925: League of Nations ratifies revised International Opium Convention which for the first time treats ganja as a prohibited drug

1925: Trinidad and Tobago bans ganja

1926: Lebanon bans hashish

1926: Australia bans ganja

1927: Indonesia bans ganja

1928: The United Kingdom bans ganja and places it in the addendum to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920

1934: The Irish Free State bans ganja and cannabis resin in the Dangerous Drugs Act

1935: Thailand criminalises cannabis

1937: The United States passes the Marijuana Tax Act, which bans use of ganja at the federal level

1939: Burma legalises and licenses the production and sale of ganja

1948: Japan adopts the Cannabis Control Law, establishing a licensing system for dealers, and punishments for unlicensed use or sale

1951: Poland classifies cannabis as a narcotic

1953: Tunisia bans ganja

1953: The Netherlands criminalises cannabis

1956: Morocco bans cannabis by royal decree

1961: The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs decreed: “The use of cannabis for other than medical and scientific purposes must be discontinued as soon as possible but in any case within twenty-five years.”

1965: New Zealand bans cannabis under the Narcotics Act

1969: Iceland & Denmark ban cannabis

1970: The United States passes the Controlled Substances Act, prohibiting cannabis federally, replacing the 1937 act

1972: The Netherlands reclassifies drugs, makes possession of 30 grams or less of ganja a misdemeanour

1973: Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah outlaws cannabis production

1976: South Korea passes the Cannabis Control Act

1988: Paraguay decriminalises personal possession of 10 grams of cannabis or less

1989: Bangladesh bans the sale of cannabis

1992: Lebanon bans and eradicates cannabis production under US pressure

1996: California is the first US jurisdiction to legalise cannabis for medicinal use

1997: Poland criminalises possession of cannabis

2001: Luxembourg decriminalises possession of cannabis

2001: Canada legalises medical cannabis

2001: Portugal decriminalises all drugs

2003: Belgium decriminalises cannabis

2004: The United Kingdom re-classifies cannabis as a Class C (less-harmful) drug

2005: Chile decriminalises cannabis

2006: Russia reduces the limits for criminal possession of cannabis

2006: Brazil decriminalises possession and cultivation of personal amounts of cannabis

2008: Austria legalises medical cannabis

2009: Mexico decriminalises possession of up to 5 grams of cannabis

2009: Argentina decriminalises cannabis

2011: Denmark approves several cannabis-derived drugs for medical use

2012: Switzerland decriminalises possession of 10 grams or of ganja

2012: Colombia decriminalises possession of 20 grams or less of ganja

2012: Washington State and Colorado legalise recreational cannabis

2013: Croatia decriminalises possession of cannabis

2013: Uruguay first country in modern era to legalise cannabis

2013: Italy legalises medical cannabis

2013: France legalises the sale of medications containing cannabis derivatives

2015: Malta decriminalises cannabis

2015: Colombia legalises medical cannabis

2015: Croatia legalises some cannabis-based drugs

2015: Jamaica decriminalises possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis and legalised the cultivation for personal use of up to 5 plants

2016: Austria decriminalises possession of small amounts of cannabis

2016: North Macedonia legalises medical cannabis

2016: Australia legalises medicinal cannabis at the federal level

2016: Poland legalises medical cannabis

2016: Georgia’s Supreme Court rules that imprisonment for possession of small amounts of cannabis is unconstitutional

2017: Germany legalises medical cannabis

2017: Belise decriminalises possession or use of 10 grams or less of ganja on private premises

2017: Greece legalises medical cannabis

2017: Mexico legalises medical use of cannabis with THC content of 1% or less

2017: Peru legalises cannabis oil for medical use

2017: Luxembourg legalises medical cannabis extracts

2017: Lesotho granted modern Africa’s first medical cannabis license.[101]

2017: Georgia decriminalises cannabis

2018: Denmark legalises cannabis-based medicines

2018: Malta legalises medicinal cannabis with a prescription

2018: Portugal legalises medical cannabis

2018: Zimbabwe legalises cannabis for medical and scientific purposes

2018: Canada legalises cannabis

2018: South Africa decriminalises cannabis

2018: The United Kingdom legalises medical cannabis

2019: Ireland legalises medical cannabis in 5-year pilot programme

2019: Israel decriminalises cannabis

2019: Trinidad and Tobago decriminalised cannabis allowing up to 30 grams per individual and cultivation of 4 plants per household

2020: Australian Capital Territory legalises cannabis possession and growth for personal use

2020: Malawi legalises ganja for medicine and industrial fibres

2020: Lebanon legalises medical cannabis

2020: United Nations partially declassifies cannabis by removing it from its most restrictive list, Schedule IV