Legal Roadblocks on the Cannabis Highway 

Medicine and Recreation are the two chief cannabis applications at present.

As many as 180.6 million people over the world used cannabis as per the World Drug Report in 2013 [1]. Humankind’s medicinal, recreational, industrial, and religious practices have used the plant for ages. Most

importantly, it is less likely to produce behavioral and psychological harm vis-à-vis other controlled psychoactive substances.

Rising awareness of the benign health effects of cannabis is turning the tide in favor of its legalization and decriminalization. Public opinion is a powerful force of legitimization – illegal markets that people do not strongly disapprove of are tougher to eliminate [2].

Next, cannabis smuggling is inextricably connected to organized crime. Uruguay was the first country to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012 [3]. Better to legally regulate product quality than to drive the market underground and leave users at the mercy of unscrupulous suppliers. Besides, organized crime comes with its share of violence.

But while these factors create a climate of opinion in support of cannabis, a host of reasons breed confusion in the legal landscape at the international, national, and regional levels. These inconsistencies in law hold back cannabis from attaining its full potential.

International Treaties Guiding Cannabis Legalities


Following treaties of the United Nations (UN) form the guidelines for cannabis-related policies of most countries, which cover the farming, distribution, possession, and use of cannabis [4]:

  • Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, is the very foundation [1] of the UN’s drug control mechanism. It restricts the production, making, import, export, trade, distribution, possession, and use of cannabis solely for scientific and medical reasons.
  • Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971
  • Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988

Why the Confusion?  

At the root of this legal uncertainty is the differing chemical composition of its variants – hemp and marijuana. Hemp contains under 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by dry weight; marijuana contains over 0.3% [5].

Many countries prohibit marijuana use as THC is psychoactive as it gets people “high.” Hemp does not face such wholesale legal hostility [6]. Cannabis also contains cannabidiol (CDB), which, unlike THC, is not psychoactive, but improves health.

Chemical uncertainty leads to geographical inconsistencies in the legal status of cannabis:

  • Some countries have legalized cannabis, and others have not.
  • Inside many countries, some regions ban it while others allow it.
  • Then, there are those countries/regions that have only “decriminalized” it, i.e., possession and use of cannabis does not attract criminal proceedings. The possessor/user etc. is liable to civil penalties, though.
  • Guidelines for the commercial sale of cannabis vary in the regions/countries that allow cannabis use.
  • Medical research on cannabis is at distinct stages in various nations.

Such geographical variations cripple the movement of cannabis and its products across state and international borders. As a result, the medicinal, recreational, and commercial potential of cannabis remains mostly untapped.

Around 2018, the ability of cannabis to treat epilepsy in children made news in the United Kingdom. Researchers are also looking into its capacity to counter HIV/AIDS, cancer, and multiple sclerosis [3].  This is in addition to its medicinal application against pain, depression, anxiety, migraines, seizures, and inflammatory bowel disease [7].

Legal Status of Cannabis

A detailed list of the status of medical and recreational cannabis is available on the website of The Cannigma.

Medical Cannabis: As many as thirty-three states and the District of Columbia in the United States authorize the therapeutic or medicinal use of cannabis [8]. Federal laws in the country, however, disallow cannabis utilization for any reason whatsoever.

The following countries permit the medical use of cannabis [9]:

Next, there are countries that allow medical cannabis, but only with tight restrictions [9]:

  • Mexico: Only if it contains under 1% THC.
  • Brazil: Sativex only. Sativex is GW Pharmaceuticals’ extract of a whole cannabis plant that treats cancer pain related to severe neuropathy as well as the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) [10].
  • Belgium: Sativex is the only approved and available cannabis product.
  • Slovenia: Highly restricted.
  • Georgia: Only possession and consumption.
  • South Korea and Turkey: Cannabis-derived drugs only.
  • Lebanon: Cannabis cultivation only.


The related legal status of medical cannabis in some other countries:

  • Seychelles is in the process of legalizing medical cannabis [11].
  • Spain has decriminalized medical cannabis [12].
  • Austria prohibits medical cannabis but allows cannabis-based medicines [12].

Medical cannabis legalities in Europe have two more dimensions [13]:

  • Clinical Trials in Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland.
  • Pilot Access Schemes in the Republic of Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Luxembourg, and Denmark.


Recreational Cannabis: Can legitimately move across international borders only when licensed by the International Narcotics Control Board [3]. Federal laws in the United States disallow recreational cannabis. However, eleven states, the District of Columbia [8], and two territories viz. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands permit it [14].

Only a handful countries have legalized recreational cannabis [9]:

Next, there are countries that have decriminalized recreational cannabis only for personal use [9]:

  • Antigua & Barbuda
  • Trinidad & Tobago
  • Jamaica
  • Paraguay
  • Australia
  • Peru
  • Ecuador

Specific cases of recreational cannabis decriminalization include [9]:

  • Estonia, Denmark, and Germany: Largely decriminalized.
  • France: Partly decriminalized.
  • Georgia: Only possession and consumption decriminalized.

Tightrope Walk

Policymakers around the world have a fair balancing act on their hands when treading the wafer-thin line of cannabis legalization. For addiction to psychoactive versions of the plant is a serious downside when weighing its exceptional medicinal upside.


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  1. The Rise And Decline Of Cannabis Prohibition – Transnational Institute
  2. Forbidden Transactions and Black Markets – Chenlin Gu, Alvin E. Rothy, and Qingyun Wuz
  3. Why are so many countries now saying cannabis is OK? – Dr John Collins, BBC News
  4. Cannabis Regulation And The Un Drug Treaties – Strategies For Reform, June 2016
  5. Hemp vs Marijuana: The Difference Explained (2020 Update) – Aaron Cadena
  6. Legal Status Of CBD Around The World – Plain Jane CBD
  7. A comparison of CBD and THC – Medical News Today
  8. Legal and Regulatory Issues Governing Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products in the United States – Alice Mead, frontiers in Plant Science
  9. Cannabis Regulation Around the World – The Cannigma Staff, Oct 2, 2019
  10. Sativex – Investigational Cannabis-Based treatment for Pain and Multiple Sclerosis – Clinical Trials Arena
  11. Cannabis Regulation Around the World – The Cannigma Staff, Oct 2, 2019
  12. Where Cannabis is Legal in Europe – The Cannigma
  13. Medicinal Cannabis Europe
  14. U.S. Territory Policy – Marijuana Policy Project, February 10, 2020
  15. Rastafari – Britannica, Written By Elizabeth A. McAlister
  16. What Is Bhang? Health Benefits and Safety – Healthline