More and more EU member states are recognising that to threaten cannabis users with imprisonment is a dead end. Using the resources of police justice, social security and public health simply ends up as an expensive fight against Don Quixote’s windmill. Perhaps better to redirect the powers of the state away from punishment and towards education campaigns for consumers - especially young ones - and to stigma-free services for those in need.
The group concerned is not a marginal one. In the EU-27 the proportion of people who have tried cannabis in their lifetime is 27.2% on average. In other words, more than one in four people are likely to have smoked pot in a country where it is criminalised one way or another.
Cannabis use has not declined during the five decades in which it has carried the threat of imprisonment, and is unlikely to do so in the future. 7.6% of Europe’s adult population (25.2 million people) have smoked in the last year. The figure is around 15% for 15 to 34-year-olds - rising in some member states to as high as 22%. In other words, one in five adult citizens in a given country might, in theory, have had a run-in with the law. In addition, recent trends show that pot use has bounced back since the lockdowns and social distancing at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic.
The reality is more nuanced, of course. For years in many European countries the police have not tried hard to crack down on cannabis users. Nonetheless,the criminalisation of the otherwise law-abiding masses has not been abandoned. Even in the Netherlands, which has a notoriously permissive drug policy, you can be sent to prison for cannabis possession; Austria, which abolished fines for pot use in 2016, also has jail time on the books for extreme cases.
EUrologus put together the graph below, showing the countries where the law sanctions cannabis use with prison and those where it does not. The graphs show the percentage of the adult population that smokes weed in each member state. However, as the example of the Netherlands shows, the threat of imprisonment is in itself a deceptive indicator. EUrologus therefore introduced a more complex but somewhat subjective indicator, based on the real-life tolerance of the authorities in the country, the availability of medical marijuana, the licensing of cannabis clubs, and the existence of legal alternatives to imprisonment.
For the countries shown in this graph, "you could go to jail for it" is the typical attitude of the law. In many cases this is simply because it is not a political priority for governments to agree on a reform that would bring the law closer in line with reality. This includes Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Poland, and (with higher rates) Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia. While smoking cannabis in those countries is punishable with imprisonment, that fact does not discourage users - as shown by Finland’s and Estonia’s high figures.
The graph shows also the countries whose criminal codes mention the possession and/or consumption of cannabis.
It is worth noting that looser regulations on pot-smoking does not necessarily result in a higher proportion of cannabis users in the adult population.
On this basis, we can distinguish between two main groups of countries that do not threaten pot users with imprisonment: those that have switched to a permissive policy for pragmatic reasons and those that are pursuing their own - more permissive - path, following the principle of individual freedom. The first group includes Spain, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Slovenia, Belgium, Portugal, and Luxembourg. In contrast to both groups, the laws in Italy, Lithuania, Latvia, and Cyprus are less permissive.
A special mention should be made of the Nordic countries and Ireland, where draconian drug policies have been ended in recent years. Norway, a neighbour of the EU, announced in a “historic shift” that it will abolish criminal liability “for the use of drugs and the acquisition and possession of a small amount of drugs for own use.”
Cannabis use has not declined during the five decades in which it has carried the threat of imprisonment, and is unlikely to do so in the future
There are EU countries where there is a significant pot-smoking population and prison sentences are the last resort, but dealing with consumers is low on the police’s and prosecutors’ priorities. These include Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark – where there are different attempts to legalise cannabis, but full reforms are still a long way off.
Finally, countries with a serious cannabis problem such as Estonia and France have not yet moved towards decriminalisation. As for the latter, it is actually the opposite: some French officials have repeatedly reiterated their support for stronger policies against both cannabis production and consumption alike.
Beyond Europe, sixteen US federal states plus Washington D.C., Canada and Uruguay can all now report on the impact of legalisation, with their varying degrees of experience of it. Generally, legalisation has led to a reduction in crime and trafficking, better access to problematic users, reduced access for under-18s, and delayed first use.
This article is a partnership with the European Data Journalism Network.
Was this article useful? If so we are delighted! It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans. Discover our membership offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!