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.