Europe Chills Out
Not all countries conform to the Single Convention’s “schedules,” and some have very tolerant enforcement policies—although (contrary to popular belief) cannabis is technically illegal even in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, cannabis is a Schedule 2 drug and opiates are Schedule 1, in a reversal of the UN (and US) policy. Under the “Dutch model,” cannabis is decriminalized, and the fines that are technically on the books for possession are not enforced. Other European countries that have decriminalized include Spain, Italy and Belgium—although the enforcement policy in these countries is nowhere near as liberal as in the Netherlands. Italy especially has been cracking down in recent years.
In 2001, Portugal became the only European country to actually remove penalties for personal possession (of all drugs) from the books entirely—which drug policy wonks consider "depenalization," rather than the decriminalization that exists elsewhere, in which moderate penalties remain on the books but often go unenforced.
Germany has quasi-decriminalized: in 1994, the Federal Republic’s top court ruled that states and localities had the option to drop criminal penalties for personal possession, and most of them have. Switzerland and the Czech Republic have both seen decriminalization bills narrowly defeated in recent years, and are likely candidates to decriminalize soon. Many Swiss cantons have already de facto decriminalized. Russia, a seemingly unlikely candidate, decriminalized personal quantities of all drugs in 2004.
Mixed Signals in Latin America
In Latin America, Colombia decriminalized "personal quantities" of all drugs by a ruling of the judiciary in 1994. Peru passed a decrim law in 2003, Venezuela in 2004, and Brazil in 2006. Argentina decriminalized via a court ruling in 2008. A decriminalization bill has been passed in Mexico, and after some initial balking signed into law by President Felipe Calderón in August 2009. In December 2013, Uruguay's President José Mujica signed his historic law legalizing cannabis under a system of government regulation.
At the same time, the US-backed Drug War in Mexico has escalated into a real shooting war, following what happened in Colombia in the '90s and Peru in the '80s. And, ironically, in December 2009, Colombia's arch-conservative President Alvaro Uribe succeeded in pushing through a constitutional amendment that re-criminalized "personal quantities." However, with the amendment still under judicial review, for now this just means that police can confiscate your drugs, but not actually arrest you.
Asia Tightens Up
At the other end of the spectrum are China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, where you can get the death penalty for simple possession (with presumed intention to distribute). The high-profile cases in which death sentences have been carried out have concerned opiates rather than cannabis, but China's laws are especially vague on the distinction. In a macabre annual ritual, China carries out mass public executions of drug convicts every June 26, International Day Against Drug Abuse. Certainly, China and the Southeast Asian nations have the world’s most draconian enforcement policies.
Dissent is emerging to the Single Convention system. In March 2009, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales publicly chewed a coca leaf at the summit of the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs in Vienna to make the point that the plant should be removed from the list of prohibited drugs.
A month earlier, three former Latin American presidents—Colombia’s César Gaviria, Brazil's Fernando Cardoso and Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo—jointly released a public statement that the Washington-led Drug War has failed and that decriminalization should be explored as an alternative. Issued by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the report was entitled “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift.” It states: “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”
There is plenty of evidence that prohibitionist strategies have backfired. US production of marijuana now equals that of Colombia, according to the 2009 annual report of the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report finds that the US and Colombia each produced some 4,000 metric tons of cannabis in 2008. Morocco is the world leader at 44,000 metric tons, followed by Paraguay at 16,500 metric tons and Mexico at 15,800. Production in Mexico is down from 25,800 metric tons in 2007, when it occupied second place after Morocco. The Mexican government boasts of eradicating 18,652 hectares of marijuana in 2008. A much higher proportion of the US crop is indoor—an estimated 430,000 plants, compared to 6.6 million outdoor.
No matter where you are, if you want to avoid a nasty stay in jail, lengthy prison term, execution by firing squad or public hanging—or (at best) a hefty bribe or fine—know the law before you light up.