As of 2019, marijuana remains the most consumed illegal drug in the world.

Many countries have enacted numerous laws to regulate the use, ownership, transportation, and sale of cannabis and cannabis products, often drawing a distinction between personal use and commercial use. Some countries have relegated the decisions to their respective states and territories.

Many have decided that all forms of recreational cannabis use are illegal. If so, individuals are subject to criminal prosecution if discovered with marijuana in their possession.

This makes ascertaining rates of marijuana use, abuse, and treatment around the world difficult. In 2019, much of global cannabis consumption takes place underground, funded (and funneled) by illegal intermediaries and criminal elements. However, as the most popular drug in the world, enough data is available to look at the countries that have legalized recreational marijuana use and the countries that are still debating this question.

Countries Where Recreational Marijuana is Legal

In 2018, Canada made news for becoming only the second country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana. The specifics of the Cannabis Act are different across the 10 provinces and three territories.

Residents of Ontario can only buy their marijuana through the government’s Ontario Cannabis Store, which only exists online. In Saskatchewan, on the other hand, cannabis can be purchased only from licensed private retail stores. In Quebec, residents are allowed to smoke marijuana anywhere that smoking tobacco is allowed. Smoke-free zones apply to both cigarettes and joints. But in the Yukon territory, consuming cannabis is only allowed in private residences and their adjoining properties.

The Globe and Mail called Canada’s decision an example of how the country is moving forward, while the rest of the world goes backward on progressive drug legalization. Canada is the only G20 world to decriminalize (and fully legalize) recreational marijuana use, while also offering retroactive pardons to those convicted of criminal violations.

Uruguay was the first country to open its doors to legalized recreational marijuana. In 2013, a government-sponsored bill passed by three votes in the senate, partly to pull the rug out from under the feet of drug rings and partly to address a public health crisis. Restrictions include limiting buyers to only residents of the country who are 18 or older. Those intending to purchase marijuana products have to register with local authorities, who will monitor their monthly purchases.

South Africa is the most recent country to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that the preexisting ban on private use was unconstitutional, which decriminalized adult use and growth for personal consumption. However, there is still a ban on public smoking, and unauthorized dealing can be subject to criminal penalties.

Does Iceland Consume the Most Cannabis In 2019?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime mapped out the countries in the world that smoke the most cannabis. The country with the highest rate of cannabis consumption is Iceland, with 18.3 percent of the population partaking. This is interesting because marijuana — either recreational or medicinal — is completely illegal on the island country.

The figures are disputed by Iceland Magazine, claiming that increasing domestic production has led to a rise in use over the last few years, but the United Nations’ figures are flawed. Instead of 18.3 percent, a closer estimation would be 6.6 percent. There is unlikely to be any jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use, but the police will arrest individuals who transport or use the drug in public.

Nonetheless, there is a movement in Iceland to legalize recreational marijuana, championed by Dorrit Moussaieff, the former first lady of the country.

Iceland Magazine may dispute the UN’s rankings, but Iceland still holds the top spot on the Office of Drugs and Crime’s list of the top 30 countries in the world for marijuana use.

  • Iceland: 18.3%
  • United States: 16.3%
  • Nigeria: 14.3%
  • Canada: 12.7%
  • Chile: 11.83%
  • France: 11.1%
  • New Zealand: 11%
  • Bermuda: 10.9%
  • Australia: 10.2%
  • Zambia: 9.5%
  • Uruguay: 9.3%
  • Italy: 9.2%
  • Spain: 9.2%
  • Madagascar: 9.1%
  • Czech Republic: 8.9%
  • Israel: 8.88%
  • St Lucia: 8.87%
  • Belize: 8.45%
  • Barbados: 8.3%
  • Netherlands: 8%
  • Greenland: 7.6%
  • Jamaica: 7.21%
  • Denmark: 6.9%
  • Switzerland: 6.7%
  • Egypt: 6.24%
  • United Kingdom: 6.2%
  • Ireland: 6%
  • Estonia: 6%
  • Bahamas: 5.54%
  • Sierra Leone: 5.42%

The Truth About Pot in the Netherlands

It may come as a surprise that the Netherlands ranks so low on UNODC’s list, given the popular status of the country as a haven for marijuana consumption and culture. But recreational cannabis is only decriminalized, not legalized, and growers are subject to having their plants confiscated and being evicted from their property for cultivating plants.

As the Financial Times explains, the Netherlands is not “pro-pot,” but it is pragmatic. Putting potentially dangerous activities out in broad daylight allows them to be regulated and taxed.

Marijuana can only be sold in certain licensed coffeeshops (the word is the literal Dutch-English translation for cannabis cafe) in certain areas of the country, and those shops have their own policies on who can purchase. To discourage drug tourism, some coffee shops require customers to show proof of local residence before making any transactions.

Advertising and promoting marijuana in Amsterdam is illegal, putting the infamous coffeeshops in a catch-22 of legally being allowed to sell marijuana, but technically forbidden from purchasing stock to sell. The Times quotes a policeman who said that marijuana is neither illegal nor legal — “it is tolerated.” Coffeeshops are subject to frequent checks by the authorities, and an establishment can be penalized (and even closed) for having too much pot in stock. Between 1995 and 2018, around 175 coffeeshops were shut down.

Long scornful of American prohibition on cannabis, the Dutch market is now envious of American laws that allow for (still highly regulated) marketing, both to individuals and to establishments selling marijuana products.

Perhaps in spite of the reputation of their country, Dutch residents used to rank among the lowest users of cannabis in the European continent. Even as recently as late 2018, Financial Times wrote that some residents of Amsterdam had never been to one of their city’s marijuana coffeeshops.

Marijuana in Mexico

While the legalization of marijuana remains a contested issue on state, local, and federal levels in America, the country’s southern neighbor has already made its mind up. Private, personal use of marijuana of 5 grams and under is decriminalized. Growing and selling marijuana independently is still against the law, but many in the country are calling for a change in this policy, as a way of robbing drug cartels of one of their products.

In October 2018, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on recreational marijuana was illegal, writing that the government could not infringe on an adult’s “fundamental right to personal development which lets them decide their recreational activities.” People can still be arrested or fined for unauthorized sales of marijuana, but they have the right to challenge that decision in court.

There is already a move to fully legalize recreational marijuana by October 2019. With a population of 130 million people, The Motley Fool predicts that Mexico could dominate the global marijuana market, and deal a crippling blow to the drug cartels that still hold a vice-like grip on the country’s public health and safety.

Marijuana Use in Jamaica

Jamaica is another country that has a reputation for being liberal with its marijuana laws, but, again, the truth is much more complicated. It wasn’t until 2015 that the country decriminalized marijuana, partly to allow the local Rastafarian population to use the drug in their religious ceremonies, partly to support a growing industry, and partly to cash in on a lucrative reputation.

Now, citizens can grow up to five cannabis plants, and having two ounces or less is only a petty offence. Many young men — most of them poor, with no prospects for jobs or social advancements — who had criminal records saw their convictions expunged. Farmers who want to grow marijuana for religious, scientific, medical, or therapeutic reasons can apply for a government license to do so.

Bob Marley’s eldest grandson told Reuters that using marijuana is part of daily life for most Jamaicans, especially Rastafarians. Members of the new religious movement view marijuana as a sacrament, and smoking it as a religious rite.

Modern Jamaican history has seen the government adopting a hostile position toward Rastafarians, and the criminalization of the drug was an extension of that. However, even with the change in policy, marijuana use and sales still remain on the sidelines.

The Miami Times writes that many in the country fear domestic and international backlash, especially from the United States, so much so that even people in the local cannabis industry are forbidden from using bank accounts to finance their businesses.

The United Kingdom

While the United States moves back and forth on legalizing marijuana, the United Kingdom’s position is much simpler. As of 2019, “cannabis remains illegal to possess, grow, distribute or sell,” explains The Sun.

A person caught with marijuana in their possession is subject to a maximum of five years in prison, an “unlimited fine” (there is no cap on the upper limit of the amount), or even both. Being convicted of growing and distributing marijuana can put a person in jail for 14 years (with the aforementioned fine). However, police are also authorized to simply issue warnings to individuals who are caught with small amounts and have no intent to distribute.

There is no provision in British law for public or private use of marijuana — all forms are illegal — but some police departments in the country have adopted lighter attitudes to what is believed to be the most popular recreational drug in the country.

In Cornwall and Devon, for example, prosecution rates for cannabis possession are at a meager 15 percent. In 2012, 342 people were convicted of cannabis possession, but in only five years’ time, the number had dropped by 59 percent. Durham Police have stated that they will not go after recreational users. Durham’s police chief has called for recreational marijuana use to be legalized across the United Kingdom.

A 2016 survey by the UK’s Home Office found that even as “the use of most drugs has declined,” cannabis remained the most commonly used drug — 6.5 percent of adults between the ages of 16 and 59 had consumed some form and amount of cannabis in the preceding year. It was also the most popular drug for users between the ages of 16 and 24, with 15.8 percent of respondents saying they had used it in that period of time. The next most popular drug after marijuana was cocaine.

Despite this, some observers feel that there is no significant appetite in the United Kingdom for the legalization of recreational marijuana. A 2018 survey issued by a drug policy think tank found that while 59 percent of the British public is open to full legalization, the “political dynamics” that have pushed the issue to the forefront of the American consciousness don’t exist across the pond.

Specifically, Britain never had to deal with the War on Drugs movement that contributed to a vast black market for drugs, so perpetrators are not subject to mass incarceration or disproportionate consequences that would be alleviated by legalization. Additionally, the opioid epidemic has not struck Britain as grievously as the United States, so offering marijuana as a deterrent does not hold much sway. Neither is there “an entrenched constitution of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” which has led many researchers to suggest that cannabis can offer relief for brain injuries and mental health illnesses.

“Legal weed in Britain,” writes The Guardian, “may be a pipe dream.”

Pot in Portugal

In 2001, Portugal shocked the world by becoming the first country in history to decriminalize all minor drug offenses. Reversing a dramatic spike in overdose deaths, “hardly anyone dies from overdosing,” wrote The Independent.

Marijuana was one of those drugs. Possession and use of small amounts (of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine) became a topic of public health, not criminal justice. People found with a controlled substance would receive only a small fine and a referral to a treatment program. There would be no more jail or a life-changing criminal record.

Despite debate and skepticism, Portugal’s experiment has been largely successful. Fourteen years after the landmark decision, the Transform Drug Policy Institute notes that the drug situation in that country “has improved significantly in key areas,” specifically that HIV infections and drug-related deaths have declined, and there has been no wave of drug addiction because of decriminalization.

So it may come as a surprise to some to learn that recreational marijuana in Portugal is not fully legal. Possession of cannabis for recreational and personal use is decriminalized up to 25 grams of plant material. Beyond this, a person would be subject to fines and potentially mandated treatment.

In February 2019, the Portuguese Parliament rejected two proposals — one that would have increased the personal limit for individual possession, and another that would have opened up the sale of cannabis at any licensed business and permitted home cultivation.

With the parliamentary decision, personal drug use and possession remain decriminalized, but the production and distribution of marijuana remain illegal and subject to criminal penalties.

Notwithstanding Portugal’s reputation for being ahead of the curve when it comes to drug decriminalization, a legislator for the country’s ruling Socialist Party explained in her opposition to the two proposals that there are too many unanswered questions about monitoring consumption and the effects of unfettered marijuana use on youth. However, she conceded that “legislation might perhaps be a natural evolution” for Portugal, given its history.

A 2018 survey found that a little more than half of Portugal’s population opposed legalizing recreational marijuana use and ownership. Most of the opposition is based in the country’s rural regions, while those in urban centers were more in favor.

In Australia

By some measures and claims, Australia is home to the highest rates of marijuana consumption in the world, and this has led to many differing opinions on what this means for the state of recreational marijuana there. When medical marijuana was legalized in 2016, it appeared that recreational legalization was inevitable. But three years on, writes Louis O’Neill on Medium, not much progress has been made in that — or any — direction.

Marijuana was first criminalized in Australia in 1928, and in some states, those laws are strictly held. People with private ownership and use of cannabis in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania are subject to criminal prosecutions. In the states of South Australia, and the territories of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (where Canberra, the federal capital, is located), local governments have decriminalized cannabis use. Offenders will likely receive a small fine or a penalty if they are caught.

Past conversations about legalizing recreational marijuana have not gone well. In 2018, Minister for Health Greg Hunt said that such a move would be “dangerous and medically irresponsible.”

However, actual use of marijuana continues unabated. The Oceania region, comprised of Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia — a total of 40 million people over 3.23 million square miles — makes up almost 15 percent of the total global consumption of marijuana.

The stigma against cannabis consumption in Australia is weakening. The government’s Institute for Health and Welfare notes that “tolerance for regular adult cannabis use among the Australian general population” has been on a steady rise, sitting at 14.5 percent in 2016. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of the country (85 percent) favors the use of medical marijuana.

But recreational use — and the legality, enforcement, and regulation thereof — remains a sticking point. Australia spends almost $1 billion every year on drug enforcement, with some in the country claiming that 70 percent of that expense is on operations related to marijuana.

O’Neill notes that Australia stands to gain much more economically if it were to open its doors to recreational marijuana. Marijuana Business Daily predicts that this could be $5.5 billion a year by 2023.

Nonetheless, all signs point to the Australian government refusing to budge, keeping personal recreational marijuana use underground.

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