Category Archives: marijuana policy

In July 2013 the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) of the Netherlands Ministry of Security and Justice asked RAND Europe to provide a multinational overview of cannabis production regimes.  The result of this research was a report that summarises differing cannabis production regimes across the world.  It also analyses official statements and/or legal decisions made about production regimes for non-medical and non-scientific purposes (i.e. recreational use for adults). 

Because GDPO has been following developments in cannabis policy across the world, particularly in the US, we decided it would be worthwhile to summarise some of the key points made in this important piece of research.  The report focuses on four key case studies: Spain, Belgium, the USA and Uruguay.

Spain – “Following several Supreme Court rulings, the possession and consumption of cannabis is no longer considered a criminal offence, and the jurisprudence in the field has tended to interpret the existing legislation in a way that permits ‘shared consumption’ and cultivation for personal use when grown in a private place.”

These legal developments have allowed hundreds of Cannabis Social Clubs (CSC) to be established although they still operate in a legal grey area.  The report identifies a number of conditions that need to be met in order for the Spanish CSC to be considered to “act in accordance with recurring criteria defined in case law.”

  • The CSC must aim to reduce the harms associated with the consumption of cannabis, decreasing for instance the risk of adulteration of the substance.
  • The premises must be closed to the public, and entrance must be only allowed to members (who should be regular consumers of cannabis).
  • The members must only obtain and consume the average quantity of cannabis. The CSC must not allow traffic of cannabis among its members.
  • The cannabis obtained from the CSC by its members is for immediate use on the CSC premises, to prevent others from having access to the substance.
  • There should be no payment/fee for access to the substance, or a limited one.” (pg. 10)

Belgium – “The Belgian CSC ‘Trekt Uw Plant’ (‘Pull Your Plant’) is a non-profit organization initiated in 2006, following the 2005 joint guideline (as issued by the Minister of Justice and the College of Public Prosecutors) which assigned the lowest possible priority to prosecution for possession of up to three grams of cannabis or one cultivated cannabis plant.”  

Trekt Uw Plant allows its members to produce cannabis collectively in closed private spaces in a number of cities (Antwerp, Luik, Brussels and Hasselt) with a ‘one plant per person’ policy.  Since establishing Trekt Uw Plant a number of members have been charged with a variety of offences from possession of cannabis to encouraging drug use, however none of charges have stuck.  The report sets out how Trekt Uw Plant operates:

“Each member pays a contribution for the costs incurred for raising the plants and every two or three months a so-called ‘exchange fair’ takes place in a private space, where members receive the harvest of their own cannabis plant (Trekt Uw Plant, 2013). In August 2013 Trekt Uw Plant consisted of 304 members, with departments in several cities and a medicinal division (Trekt Uw Plant, 2013). Eligibility for membership in Trekt Uw Plant is restricted to adults who live in Belgium, are cannabis users, are informed about the Belgian Drug Law regarding cannabis, support the organisation’s aims, and endorse its statutes and decisions (Trekt Uw Plant, 2006; Plant, n.d.), and membership is open to both non-medical and medical cannabis users (Verbond voor Opheffing van het Cannabisverbod, 2010). The organisation is based on a not-for-profit principle and is financially supported through donations, loans, membership contributions, legacies and other awards (Trekt Uw Plant, 2006).”(pg. 18)  

United States – The RAND report analyses the developments in Washington and Colorado where legal regulation of cannabis was instituted by voter initiatives in November 2012.  The report notes that, “Both states now allow adults aged 21 and older to possess up to one ounce (28.35 grams) of cannabis and larger weights of cannabis-infused beverages and edibles, and Colorado allows home growing (up to 6 plants), but the significant change is the licensing of large-scale commercial cannabis businesses. The initiatives tasked state agencies with developing regimes to license and regulate for-profit cannabis firms.”

In Colorado, the commercial market is regulated by the Marijuana Enforcement Division, operating under the Department of Revenue, and based on the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, which already regulates the medical cannabis market. Colorado’s regulatory system of production and supply came in to force on 1st January 2014 and it’s estimated that recreational cannabis sales exceeded $5million in the first week alone.  An NBC News survey published on 3rd February indicates that taxes raised from cannabis sales have netted the state $1.24 million in tax revenue in the first month.  It is possible that the sales will not continue at these levels once the novelty has worn off, however Mason Tvert, director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project argues that the so-called “Colorado experiment” will continue to show impressive sales, “obviously this is just the first month of sales and only a fraction of the businesses that are expected to be open are currently operating.”

In Washington where the Liquor Control Board (LCB) is in charge of regulating the industry, no date has formally been stated for the opening of stores but its thought they might be ready for sales by June of 2014. The LCB started accepting applications for licenses on November 18th 2013.

Whilst cannabis is still illegal under federal law, in August 2013 the US Department of Justice issued a memo that set out eight enforcement priorities in the light of the votes in Washington and Colorado:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for
  • the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences
  • associated with marijuana use;
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and
  • environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Uruguay – On 31st July 2013 Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted in favour of a bill to regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis.  Details of the bill can be found here (in Spanish).  This bill was then passed to the Senate who approved the bill by 16 to 13 votes on 10th December.  President Mujica signed the bill into law at the end of December with the first sales likely to be in April 2014.

The bill will, “create a new public agency, the Instituto de Regulacion y Control del Cannabis [IRCCA], to issue permits for production by for-profit companies, and maintain registries for users and those who want to (1) grow at home (up to six plants), (2) participate in collectives (between 15 and 45 members who maintain up to 99 plants at any given point) and (3) purchase at pharmacies (up to 40 grams per month produced by licensed companies).”

The RAND report identifies four crucial distinctions between these case studies:

The first is whether the activity pertains only to distribution within cannabis clubs, as in Belgium and Spain, or whether larger scale and overtly for-profit activity is or would be permitted, as in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay. The second distinction pertains to whether government action is undertaken by the national government or by a subnational jurisdiction that has some degree of sovereignty under that country’s constitution.  Uruguay’s situation is the only one that involves a national government passing a law with respect to activity that is clearly meant to be suppressed by the international treaties. The third issue is the role government employees do or do not play in production and distribution. In Belgium and Spain, there is no role. In Colorado and Washington the role is indirect, in the form of licensing and regulating but not participating in the trade. A final distinction pertains to how overt the officially banned but nonetheless tolerated activity can be. In Belgium, if the cannabis clubs are visible in the manner of Trekt Uw Plant, law enforcement may act, albeit perhaps half-heartedly. By contrast, cannabis production and distribution in Uruguay and the United States will involve fully open activities; cannabis business will be registered with, and will pay taxes to, the government.” (pg. xi-x)

As well as reviewing these four case studies, the report also refers to a number of the other countries (or jurisdictions) that have either allowed production of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes (Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland) or have had discussions about changing the laws on cannabis production for recreational use (e.g. Chile, Denmark, Portugal and Switzerland and Copenhagen City Council).

This report is a fantastic resource for those anyone interested in the ways that cannabis policy is developing across the globe.

Citation for the report is as follows: Kilmer, Beau, Kristy Kruithof, Mafalda Pardal, Jonathan P. Caulkins and Jennifer Rubin. Multinational overview of cannabis production regimes. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013.

INCB vs Uruguay: the art of diplomacy

INCB President Yans disqualified himself and should consider stepping down

International tensions over Uruguay’s decision to regulate the cannabis market reached new levels when Raymond Yans, president of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), accused Uruguay of negligence with regard to public health concerns, deliberately blocking dialogue attempts and having a “pirate attitude” towards the UN conventions. President Mujica reacted angrily, declaring that someone should “tell that guy to stop lying,” while Milton Romani, ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS), said that Yans “should consider resigning because this is not how you treat sovereign states.”

The majority vote in the Uruguayan Senate on Tuesday, December 10, gave the final green light to legally regulate the domestic cannabis market for medical, industrial and recreational use. The system for licensed cultivation and distribution through pharmacies will start in the spring under strict state controls. And as soon as president Mujica signs the bill, people will be able to grow up to six plants for personal use, and cannabis clubs can be registered to allow 15 to 45 members to grow up to 99 plants collectively. INCB president Raymond Yans said in a press release he was “surprised” that Uruguay “knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions of the treaty”.

The outcome of the Senate vote was as expected (the approval in the House of Representatives earlier this year was much more a cliff-hanger) and the fact that the INCB came out with a strong statement against it was no big surprise either. There is little doubt that the cannabis regulation schemes approved in the US states of Colorado and Washington, and now in Uruguay, fall outside of the “limits of latitude” of the UN drug control conventions. The INCB mandate includes monitoring compliance with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the treaty in which cannabis is scheduled, so the Board can legitimately express its concern over the increasing defiance of international cannabis control requirements. As the Commentary on the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs explains, however, the Board “has to maintain friendly relations with Governments, guided in carrying out the Conventions by a spirit of co-operation rather than by a narrow view of the letter of the law” (p. 11, § 5).

The real issue at hand is how the UN apparatus has been dealing with the reality of ongoing cannabis policy changes that appear to be irreversible, spreading out rapidly and posing fundamental challenges to the treaty system. The 2006 UNODC World Drug Re­port recognised that “much of the early material on cannabis is now considered inaccurate, and that a series of studies in a range of countries have exonerated cannabis of many of the charges levelled against it.” The report concludes that “[e]ither the gap between the letter and spirit of the Single Convention, so manifest with cannabis, needs to be bridged, or parties to the Convention need to discuss redefining the status of cannabis.”[1]

The real surprise this week, therefore, was to see how ill-prepared, politicised and undiplomatic the statements from both INCB and UNODC were, given that they were well aware of Uruguay’s plan and would have been conscious of the need to respond. Perhaps their awkward remarks reflect their recognition this is the beginning of an irreversible trend that they are powerless to stop. The first dominoes have fallen and there are more to come… Some US states are preparing regulation initiatives to bring to the ballot in November next year, and several more intend to do so for the 2016 presidential elections.

Offensive accusations

In the INCB press release, Yans accused the Uruguayan government and parliament of not acting in the interest of the health and safety of the population. Without any references or sources, he said that “the decision of the Uruguayan legislature fails to consider its negative impacts on health,” that “available scientific evidence … was not taken into consideration by the legislators” and that the stated aim of the legislation to reduce crime “relied on rather precarious and unsubstantiated assumptions.”

Without devoting a single word to the justification provided by the government, the detailed presentation by senator Roberto Conde or the arguments given in the nearly twelve hours of debate about the law, Yans simply gave his own unsubstantiated judgement. The legislation “will not protect young people but rather have the perverse effect of encouraging early experimentation, lowering the age of first use, and thus contributing to developmental problems and earlier onset of addiction and other disorders.”

Uruguay has developed evidence-based policies on prevention, demand reduction and risk and harm reduction for all psychoactive substances. The strong public health approach adopted by Uruguay is also showcased by its strict tobacco controls for which the country is currently being sued by Philip Morris, who are claiming billion dollar losses, and by new alcohol misuse prevention measures that will be introduced next year. Accusing this government and these legislators of negligence in the area of public health protection is unjustified and offensive. UNODC issued the same day a fairly lame statement, simply to say that they agreed with everything the INCB president said: parroting Yans was apparently the best UNODC could come up with on this crucial moment for the global drug policy debate.

The Dread Pirate Mujica

Things got worse when Yans was interviewed by EFEand accused the Uruguayan government of having a “pirate attitude” to the conventions. In a previous video interview, referring to the referenda in Colorado and Washington, he had called on these states to “stop this nonsense” – once again a disrespectful way to describe the outcome of a democratic decision making process. He hasn’t accused the US government of negligence or a “pirate attitude” yet, prompting Mujica to question a double discourse: “One for Uruguay and one for the powerful.”

To EFE, Yans also expressed his frustration on how difficult it has been to get access to the government to discuss these matters: “We have desperately tried to meet with Uruguayan authorities for two years. It is the only country in the world, with Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, that has refused to have a dialogue with the INCB.” Twice before, Yans had expressed the same frustration, first when a proposed INCB mission to Montevideo was cancelled and later on when “Uruguay-Guinea” decided not to send a delegation to the November 2013 INCB session.

It is not true that a high level political dialogue has not taken place. In the margins of the 2013 Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) session in March in Vienna, the Uruguayan Minister for the Presidency (“prosecretario”, equivalent to “Prime Minister”) Diego Cánepa had extensive meetings with Raymond Yans. But it is true that there was a certain reluctance on the Uruguayan side to receive Yans in Montevideo before the Parliamentary process was concluded. Yans’ attitude raised concerns that the already polarised and politicised national debate in Uruguay might be further “polluted” by his unsubstantiated personal opinions if they were presented as official UN positions. Uruguay expressed its willingness to engage in further dialogue with the Board once the legislation had been approved. By now, however, dialogue seems pointless as long as Yans remains president.

Raymond Yans is not known for his excellence in the art of diplomacy and nuance, and his controversial remarks do not represent the opinion of all thirteen INCB members. Usually no prior consultation takes place before issuing such statements presumably done by the president in name of the INCB, and as one of the members made clear that was the case again now.


Looking at the long-term implications for international drug policy, UNODC Executive Director Yuri Fedotov said, in response to Uruguay’s decision: “It is unfortunate that, at a time when the world is engaged in an ongoing discussion on the world drug problem, a unilateral action has been taken ahead of the outcome at a special session of the UN General Assembly planned for 2016.” An intensive debate about the future direction of drug policy is ongoing, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, as Yans also recognised and “welcomed”. “Yet, such discussions should be within the framework of the drug control conventions,” he said, trying to impose limits on what states are allowed to discuss.

The reality is that as long as no country has the courage to truly challenge the dominant paradigm and to pioneer alternative policies in practice, the 2016 UNGASS will most likely result in nothing more than a slightly tweaked new “consensus” declaration. Uruguay’s Drugs Strategy for 2011-2015 mentions the need for a new drug control paradigm based on science, public health, social development and human rights, and promises to promote “a great international debate about the implementation and the results of the hegemonic drug policies in force in the last 50 years, prompting the review of the international conventions governing the matter.” According to the policy document, international agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNODC, the Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), the Human Rights Council, OAS/CICAD, etc., all should be involved in the debate.

Such a process to redefine future UN drug control policy guidance is starting right now, with the CND high-level segment in March 2014 and the preparations for the 2016 UNGASS. Managing the upcoming debate constructively to reflect the diverging opinions and policies will require not only basic understanding of the art of diplomacy, but also respect for the difficult choices countries need to make in the process. In theory, the INCB could play a useful role in assisting member states to carefully manage the unavoidable future changes in the treaty system. With his blunt statements on Uruguay, however, Yans has disqualified himself, become an obstacle to constructive dialogue and should indeed consider stepping down.

This blog was written by Martin Jelsma and originally appeared on the TNI Drugs and Democracy website here.

Uruguay Votes to Become the First Nation to Legally Regulate Cannabis

 The traditional [interdiction] approach hasn’t worked. Someone has to be the first [to try this].  President José Mujica of Uruguay, June 2013

On Tuesday 10th December Uruguay made history by voting to establish a legally regulated system for production and supply of cannabis for recreational purposes.  In November 2012, two US States – Washington and Colorado – voted to legally regulate marijuana for recreational purposes, but the vote in Uruguay makes it  the first country to establish such a system anywhere in the world.

After much debate, on 31st July 2013 Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted in favour of a bill to regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis.  Details of the bill can be found here (in Spanish).  This bill was then passed to the Senate who approved the bill on 10th December.  The bill passed by 16 to 13 votes.  President Mujica is likely to sign the bill into law before the end of 2013 with the first sales likely to be in April 2014.

The new law was proposed in many ways as a response to the increased use within the country of a highly addictive cocaine derivative called ‘paco’ and the fact that the markets for this drug and marijuana are closely connected. Key aims of cannabis regulation are  to separate the markets so that marijuana users are  not exposed to ‘paco’ by dealers and to allow law enforcement officials to concentrate on what is deemed to be a more problematic substance.  It is also intended that the legislation will  reduce the size and impact of the black market in marijuana as well as tackle drug trafficking organisations, particularly those importing the drug from neighbouring Paraguay.

The law will:

  • Create a state-run monopoly of production, distribution and consumption of marijuana
  • Establish a government-run Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis  (IRCCA) that will set the price – initially likely to be  $1 a gram in order to undercut the black market – and monitor the impact of the programme.
  • Mean that cannabis will be sold only at licensed pharmacies
  • Allow registered consumers  (Uruguayan nationals only) over the age of 18 to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 oz) of cannabis per month from licensed pharmacies and grow up to 6 plants for personal consumption
  • Allow cannabis clubs to be established for up to 45 members who will be able to cultivate as many as 99 plants.

In seeking to ensure successful passage of the bill, its supporters within the Uruguayan government and civil society groups, have been in communication with their counterparts in Washington and Colorado in order to learn from their experiences.  One of these civil society groups – Regulacion Responsable – created a video in an effort  to help explain the benefits of the new bill to the general public, large sections of which still remain  sceptical of it.

Polls suggest about 60% of the population remains opposed to legal regulation although support has been growing slightly.  Opposition politicians have threatened to call a referendum on the bill but the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition has framed it as an ‘experiment’ and has promised that they are willing to look at any evidence both in support of, and against, the new regulatory regime. 

Uruguay’s groundbreaking new law will be watched by many other countries who are interested in reforming their drug laws.  While no country is currently ready to replicate the Uruguayan model, the historic policy shift will surely send ripples across the international community.  Indeed, operating at odds with the UN drug control treaties that bind parties to the prohibition of non-medical and non-scientific use of cannabis, events in Montevideo have provoked condemnation from both the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). 

The INCB President Raymond Yans said on Wednesday  11th December that he was “surprised that a legislative body that has endorsed an international law and agreements, and a Government that is an active partner in international cooperation and in the maintenance of the international rule of law, knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions of the treaty”.

Both these UN drug control bodies fear for the integrity of prohibition-oriented international drug control framework.  So they should. As Martin Jelsma, Coordinator of the Drugs & Democracy Programme at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI) has noted: “The approval of regulation under state control in Uruguay marks a tipping point in the failed war against drugs. The trend is becoming irreversible: the era of a globally enforced cannabis prohibition regime is drawing to a close”.

The Beginning of the End for the Pot Prohibition


The beginning of the end for the ‘war on weed’ in the US?

A new survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports in August 2013 shows that 82% of Americans think the US is losing the war on drugs. Only 4% of respondents believe the US is winning this war. This survey comes at a sensitive time for US commitment to the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on weed’ at least.

In November 2012 two US states – Washington and Colorado – voted to tax and regulate recreational adult use of cannabis. Earlier this year Pew Research found a majority of the public – 52% – think the drug should be legal. The same poll also found that almost three quarters of Americans – 72% – think that efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.

Now it seems that even the federal government is having doubts about the benefits of criminalising pot smokers. In August US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that low level, nonviolent drug offenders with no history of ties to gangs or organised crime shouldn’t be charged with offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Also in August CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta (reportedly Obama’s choice for US Surgeon General, though Gupta turned the post down) made a documentary about the medical benefits of marijuana. Gupta argued that the DEA’s insistence that cannabis has “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse” has little scientific basis and that the American public has been “systematically misled” about cannabis and apologized for his role in this. The White House has refused to comment on Gupta’s documentary and in fact since Obama took office raids on medical marijuana dispensaries have increased.

On 29th of August 2013 the Department of Justice released a memorandum to US attorneys and law enforcement officials noting that whilst they should continue to enforce the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana the main focus in those states that allow some form of cannabis use – either for recreational purposes such as Washington and Colorado – or for medical use should be on eight key areas:

• Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
• Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
• Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
• Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
• Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
• Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
• Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property

This guidance is an attempt to resolve the tensions between state laws and federal law with regards to cannabis. The commitment to maintaining the prohibition on pot is essential – not least because they are signed up to international treaties such as the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – however Obama has been open about his own weed smoking as a college student and must find it hard to ignore the shifting public opinion especially when more people voted to tax and regulate pot in Colorado than voted for him.

So the big question many drug law reformers in the US are asking is, ‘Is this the beginning of the end for pot prohibition?’