The legality of cannabis has been the subject of debate and controversy for decades. Cannabis is illegal to consume, use, possess, cultivate, transfer or trade in most countries. Since the beginning of widespread cannabis prohibition around the mid 20th century,[1] most countries have not re-legalized it for personal use, although more than 10 countries tolerate (or have decriminalized) its use and/or its cultivation in limited quantities. Medicinal use of cannabis is also legal in a number of countries, including Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel and 16 states of the United States. In the Netherlands cannabis is formaly illegal, but Justice-guidelines show that no action is to be taken in case of possession of a small amount and sale under strict conditions.

Some countries have laws that are not as vigorously prosecuted as others, but other than the countries that offer access to medical marijuana, the majority of countries have various penalties ranging from lenient to barbaric, and everything in between. Some infractions are definitely taken more seriously in some countries than others when it comes to regarding the cultivation, use, possession, or transfer of cannabis for recreational use. A few jurisdictions have lessened the penalties for possession of small quantities of cannabis, so that it is punished by confiscation and a fine, rather than imprisonment. Some jurisdictions/drug courts use mandatory treatment programs for young or frequent users, with freedom from "narcotic" drugs as the goal. A few jurisdictions permit cannabis use for medicinal purposes. There are also changes in a more restrictive direction as in Canada. Drug tests to detect cannabis are increasingly common in many countries, and have resulted in jail sentences and people being fired from their jobs.[2] However, simple possession can carry long jail sentences in some countries, particularly in parts of East Asia, such as Malaysia where the sale of cannabis may lead to a sentence of life in prison or even execution.

Under the name cannabis, 19th century medical practitioners sold the drug (usually as a tincture), popularizing the word amongst English-speakers. It was rumored that Queen Victoria's menstrual pains were treated with cannabis; her personal physician, Sir John Russell Reynolds, wrote an article in the first edition of the medical journal The Lancet about the benefits of cannabis.[3] In 1894, the Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission commissioned by the UK Secretary of State and the government of India, was instrumental in the decision not to criminalize the drug in those countries.[4] From 1860 different states in the United States started to implement regulations for sales of Cannabis sativa.[5] In 1925 a change of the International Opium Convention[6] banned exportation of Indian hemp to countries that have prohibited its use. Importing countries were required to issue certificates approving the importation and stating that the shipment was to be used "exclusively for medical or scientific purposes".

In 1937 the F.D. Roosevelt administration crafted the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, the first US national law making cannabis possession illegal via an unpayable tax on the drug.

The name marijuana (Mexican Spanish marihuana, mariguana) is associated almost exclusively with the plant's psychoactive use. The term is now well known in English largely due to the efforts of American drug prohibitionists during the 1920s and 1930s. Mexico itself had passed prohibition in 1925, following the International Opium Convention.[7] The prohibitionists deliberately used a Mexican name for cannabis in order to turn the US populace against the idea that it should be legal by playing to negative attitudes towards that nationality. (See 1937 Marihuana Tax Act). Those who demonized the drug by calling it marihuana omitted the fact that the "deadly marihuana" was identical to Cannabis sativa, which had at the time a reputation for pharmaceutical safety.[8] However, due to variations in the potency of the preparations, Cannabis indica in the 1930s had lost most of its former popularity as a medical drug.[9]

Some advocate legalization of cannabis, believing that it will eliminate the illegal trade and associated crime, yield a valuable tax-source and reduce policing costs. Cannabis is now available as a palliative agent, in Canada, with a medical prescription. In 1969, only 16% percent of voters in the USA supported legalization, according to a poll by Gallup. According to the same source, that number had risen to 36% by 2005.[10] More recent polling indicates that the number has risen even further since the financial crisis of 2007-2009: in 2009, between 46% and 56% of US voters would support legalization.[11] In Europe has the development turned in the opposite direction in the Netherlands where the last few years certain strains of cannabis with higher concentrations of THC and drug tourism have challenged the former policy with legal sales of cannabis and led to more restrictive approach; e.g. ban of all sales of cannabis to tourists in coffee shops from the end of 2011 onward.

There has been no change in Dutch cannabis coffeeshop policies, and they are still allowing foreign visitors to purchase cannabis products.

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