There are more and more places that, in the interest of public health and safety, are changing their drug policies and beginning to discuss the legalisation of cannabis. Prohibition has failed. In fact, it has been failing for years, which is why Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Uruguay have enacted legalisation, putting an end to criminal markets and defending the consumer. But what is going on in Europe? Here the situation is not as encouraging, although local groups are fighting (and hard) for the legalisation they dream of.
“While pro-cannabis policies are taking off in the Americas, Europe seems to be falling behind.” This is the conclusion reached in the last report on cannabis in Europe (“Cannabis Policy Reform in Europe”) by the Transnational Institute. According to the document, the Old Continent's reluctance to introduce new policies with regards to cannabis is spurring local and regional authorities in some countries to seek out routes towards legalisation on their own.
The situation, however, is challenging, as the policies of the European Union's member states depend on the UN's drug control treaties, which restrict cannabis to the medical and scientific spheres. Whatever the case, the European countries' situations are as varied as they are.
Holland has always been an example of openness with regards to cannabis, but in recent years things are changing, and the country is backpedalling, taking steps towards repression. While buying and possessing small amounts of cannabis is not a crime in the Netherlands, its cultivation and commercialization are very restricted, a contradiction that has entailed problems for Holland's “coffee shop” model, one that has been there from the beginning. Several governments since 1995 have tried to revise their legislation, concluding that cannabis consumption and possession for personal use should not be treated as a criminal issue.
This question was never taken up, however, and even attempts at reform were squashed on multiple occasions by the European Union, which has generated negative consequences for Holland, only aggravated by recent (conservative) governments, which have been totally opposed to the cannabis-related reform, and have even led the country in the opposite direction.
Between 1969 and 2004 the possession of up to ten grams of cannabis for personal use was not a crime in Denmark. The authorities even looked the other way with respect to the small-scale sale of marijuana. Since a neoliberal government came to power in 2001, however, cannabis policies and laws have become stricter, cannabis possession has been criminalised, and fines have been multiplied since 2007.
Police repression has also augmented as a result of a zero-tolerance policy, which has spawned a black market, growing in the number of people involved and its financial support. According to the studies, in 2004, when the crackdown began, there were more murders and attempted murders than during the five previous years. There were even shootouts (never seen before in the country), related to the illegal cannabis market.
Due to these incidents, in 2009 the City of Copenhagen decided to approve certain measures permitting the sale of therapeutic cannabis at dispensaries (only for residents). In spite of this, almost the entire cannabis market in Copenhagen, whose volume comes to some 200 million euros, is in the hands of organised crime.
After years of silence, the debate on cannabis regulation returned to the table in 2013 when Monika Herrmann, the mayor of the district of Kreuzberg (Berlin), representing the Green Party, announced the launching of a pilot project to establish stores selling marijuana (with security guards and employees with medical training) as a way to deal with the country's burgeoning drug traffic.
Some of the party's politicians have insisted on calling them “points of sale” to differentiate them from “coffee shops,” and the idea is for them to sell 3 to 5 grams of marijuana per customer. Districts in Cologne, Hamburg and Frankfurt have also decided to back the initiative, and have begun to debate the issue, although all, as the law dictates, will have to demonstrate the scientific aims of their proposals.
For some years the Greens’ parliamentary initiatives and those of other parties on the Left have centred on the question of social clubs, with little headway being made because the main parties are blocking any attempts at reform. This situation has led groups of German law professors to unite to demand the
legalisation of the sale and possession of cannabis, arguing that the criminal persecution of consumers is ineffective.
In Spain, social clubs stand out in the cannabis field, groups based on the legalisation of growing for personal use (although there are administrative sanctions for consumption in public). The existing legal void, however, does not clearly specify how they should be regulated, which means that members are in a constant state of apprehension and defencelessness, with raids against them and their crops being relatively common. Thus, their representatives have repeatedly called for laws that dispel this uncertainty and allow them to operate free of fear.
In the Basque Country, Catalonia and Andalusia local governments are trying to regulate these clubs within the limits set by national law. The conservative central government, however, has promoted actions to place limits on the right to association, believing that some organizations dedicated to drug distribution could use these cannabis clubs as fronts. The most progressive sectors have always rejected these arguments, arguing that the whole point of these clubs is to avoid illegality and illegal actions.
A study has calculated that Spaniards spend some 1.163 billion euros per year on cannabis. If all these sales were subject to IVA it would generate 200 million euros in tax revenue, and could create up to 40,000 jobs.
Between 2003 and 2004 several laws reduced the punishments for cannabis possession in Belgium. This model was quite tolerant, but the country has been drifting towards more repressive policies. In 2013, the New Flemish Alliance in Antwerp established administrative sanctions and fines for marijuana possession, and in 2014 this policy went national.
Like in Germany, many academics have spoken out to assess the risks and benefits entailed by cannabis, arguing that the current repression costs 400 million euros per year.
In 2001 the Swiss government acted to allow the possession and use of cannabis in a regulated market, but the proposal (backed by the Ministry of Health) became bogged down in the Parliament. Although the upper chamber voted in favour of the legalisation of personal consumption (and had done so on several occasions), the lower chamber did not. This failure spurred farmers and activists to gather signatures for a referendum, held in 2000, but with scant support.
In October of 2013 cannabis was legalised, allowing the possession of ten grams, with a view to reducing the number of cases (about 30,000 per year) that ended up clogging up the Swiss courts. The groups in favour of legalisation, however, still believe that the law is too strict.
France features some of Europe's strictest cannabis laws, in spite of the country's high consumption rates.
In fact, cannabis is the most consumed illegal substance in the country, with 42% of the population acknowledging having tried it at some point. But the use and possession of “illicit drugs” is a crime, and the law does not distinguish between possession for personal use or trafficking.
In 2010 157,341 drug-related infractions were documented, with 87.5% related to marijuana, which is why several initiatives were promoted to regulate the cannabis market, and from 2011 to 2014 some groups called for the controlled legalisation of the plant's consumption and cultivation. Their proposals, however, did not receive significant support.
But citizens are now beginning to mobilise in response to the social implications of prohibition. Some of the first who have taken to the streets are associations of immigrants, protesting that the repression against drugs disproportionately affects ethnic minorities in France. And they have done so with support from the representative council Black Associations and the group Republic and Diversity, under the slogan “War against Drugs, Race War,” calling for “escaping from the dead end of prohibition” and “the legalisation of the use of drugs and the commencement of legalized, controlled access, with regulations specific to each product.”
With information from Tni.org