In the three years since NORML released its 1999 report on European drug policy, nations in the European Union (EU) have continued to move away from US-styled "war on drugs" ideology. European governments have typically manifested this policy shift by redefining drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one, and enacting legislation reflecting this change. As part of this trend, several EU nations have recently ratified laws liberalizing the possession and use of marijuana. Below are summaries of the major changes in cannabis policy that have taken place in Europe since 1999. Countries that have not enacted any significant changes since 1999 are identified by the headline "NO CHANGE."
Government officials issued a formal declaration in January 2001 mandating prosecutors and judges to "no longer interfere in the lives of people who use cannabis on a personal basis and who do not create harm or do not show dependence." Under the new policy, marijuana possession and cultivation for personal use is no longer be criminally prosecuted. However, the production and sale of large quantities of marijuana continues to be actively prosecuted, as is pot use that leads to "unsociable behavior." Public smoking of marijuana remains punishable under Belgian "social nuisance" laws.
Despite Belgium's shift in marijuana policy, no formal legislative change is yet to be enacted.
French authorities no longer prosecute 95 percent of pot possession cases, according to statistics reported by The Christian Science Monitor. This trend follows a June 1999 Ministry of Justice directive urging prosecutors to apply therapeutic alternatives to prison whenever possible for minor drug offenders. The directive mandates that, "The imprisonment of drug users [who have] not committed other related offenses must be the last resort," it says. The Ministry of Justice previously issued a similar edict in 1987.
In January 2002, Justice officials further urged politicians to consider formally decriminalizing cannabis.
Government officials reclassified cannabis in April 2001 as a "Category B" controlled substance, effectively decriminalizing personal possession and use of the drug by adults. Under the new law, minor marijuana offenders are subject to a potential fine, but not jail. More serious marijuana-related offenses, such as marijuana trafficking or use in front of a minor, remain punishable by jail terms ranging from six months to five years imprisonment.
Ministry of Justice officials declared in July 2002 that they would maintain existing policies tolerating the sale of cannabis in public "coffee shops." This announcement reversed prior statements from newly elected federal officials indicating that Parliament was considering limiting the number of coffee shops operating near the nation's borders. According to a July 2002 study commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, there are 805 licensed cannabis cafés in the Netherlands. Under Dutch policy, coffee shops may sell up to five grams of marijuana per customer.
In addition, patients who require marijuana for medicinal purposes may be able to obtain prescription-grade cannabis in pharmacies by 2003, according to an April 2002 announcement by the Dutch Ministry of Health. Government officials are expected to enter contracts with authorized growers to provide the pharmaceutical-grade cannabis.
Although a government-appointed commission recommended decriminalizing marijuana in March 2002, no legislation to enact this policy change is pending.
Since July 1, 2001, possession and use of marijuana and other illicit substances is no longer an offense punishable by criminal imprisonment. Under the new law, police now treat the possession of up to a ten-day supply of cannabis or narcotics as an administrative violation rather than criminal offense. Those found in possession of marijuana or other drugs are evaluated by a special health and welfare commission, which may refer offenders to counseling and/or treatment. Non-habitual offenders may be ordered to pay a fine or receive no penalty. Police continue to confiscate marijuana under the new law.
The Swiss Senate approved a law in 2002 to end all civil and criminal penalties on the personal use, possession and cultivation of cannabis by those over 18 years of age. The proposal would also establish federal guidelines regarding commercial cultivation and retail sales of the drug. Sales of marijuana to minors or non-citizens would remain a prosecutable offense under the bill, which still must pass the Swiss Upper and Lower House of Representatives before becoming law. Both Houses previously recommended legalizing marijuana in 2001, before such legislation was pending.
Government officials reaffirmed plans in July 2002 to formally downgrade marijuana so that its possession is no longer an arrestable offense. The British House of Commons and Parliament's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) also issued similar recommendations in 2002, finding, "The current classification of cannabis is disproportionate in relation to both its inherent harmfulness, and to the harmfulness of other substances" that share the same legal classification as marijuana.
Under the pending reclassification, cannabis will be rescheduled from a Class B controlled substance to Class C - the least harmful category of illegal drugs under British law. Although possession of Class C drugs technically carries a two-year maximum prison term, only offenses punishable by at least five years imprisonment are arrestable in the UK.
Parliament is expected to formally enact its new policy in 2003. Under the pending law, possession of up to three grams of marijuana will be decriminalized. In these cases, police will issue a formal warning to users, but no arrest will be made. Any marijuana found at the scene will be confiscated.
Smoking marijuana in public or in front of children will remain an arrestable offense, punishable by a fine and a potential criminal record. Those cited by police for marijuana possession on three separate occasions within a 12-month period will also be subject to arrest and criminal prosecution.
Regarding the possession and use of cannabis for medical purposes, regulators from the British Medicines Control Agency (MCA) have recently indicated that they may legalize sublingual extracts of the drug by late 2003 or early 2004. Health regulators are currently awaiting results from an ongoing series of large-scale patient trials, the last of which are expected to be completed by summer 2003. Preliminary results regarding the use of medicinal cannabis extracts to relieve pain and spasticity have been positive.
Additional information on European drug policy is available from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. NORML's 1999 report, European Drug Policy: Analysis and Case Studies, is available online at: NORML.