The next likely countries to legalize cannabis

earthWith Canada now joining Uruguay as the second country to legalize cannabis at the national level, industry eyes are scanning the world map for which could be the likely third. Latin America may provide the candidate, as even UN experts now urge the region's governments to consider legalization as a way out of the endemic narco-violence. But pressure for legal cannabis is fast mounting in several European countries as well. Legalization may soon be on the legislative agenda in Australia, while New Zealand has promised to put the questions before the voters. 

Following passage of the Cannabis Act by Canada's Senate in early June, the Great White North is now on track to see legal herb by year's end—although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now saying the law will take effect in October, rather than July as originally promised.

"Obviously the current approach—the current prohibition of marijuana—has not worked to protect our kids, to keep the money out of the pockets of organised crime and that’s why we’re bringing in a new legalised framework around marijuana," Trudeau reiterated the arguments for legalization in announcing the new schedule.

Which country around the world will be next to embrace this logic? The nexy likely candidate may well be in Latin America, where Uruguay has already legalized—although retail sales there off to a slow start.

Tide turning in Latin America
There is a sense of inevitability to the legalization solution, when even United Nations experts are calling upon the region's governments to consider it. On May 28, the head of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), told a forum of regional governments in Paris that the idea's time has come. Alicia Barcena, a Mexican scientist who now heads ECLAC, said: "“I'm going to be very provocative. Who would drug legalization be good for? Latin America and the Caribbean, for God’s sake. Because the illegality is what’s killing people,” she said. “It’s time to seriously consider legalizing drugs."

And some of the Latin countries hit hardest by drug war violence are in fact widening elbow room for cannabis. Out in front by a mile is Colombia, which is fast embracing a legal cannabis industry under the rubric of its 2015 medical marijuana law. And last year Peru passed a medical marijuana law, although a much more limited one, and the implementing regulations which will determine if cultivation will be permitted remain delayed. Both countries have also decriminalized—Colombia through a Supreme Court decision in 2012, and Peru through legislation in 2006.

A clear sign of the tide turning in Mexico is the recent news that ex-president Vicente Fox is joining the board of High Times magazine. Fox has emerged as an aggressive advocate of legalization, despite the fact that he vetoed a legalization bill as president in 2006 (under heavy US pressure). Mexico passed a decriminalization law in 2009, which progressive lawmakers have been seeking to expand since then, introducing new measures to increase the current five-gram "personal use" quantity. Mexico also passed a medical marijuana law last year, although the program remains limited to CBD products at present. In an extraordinary move in 2015, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled that cannabis use is protected by the country's constitution, under provisions guaranteeing the "free development of the personality." Due to restrictions on the power of Mexico's judiciary, however, this did not result in immediate overturn of cannabis prohibition.

Europe's cannabis contradiction: how sustainable?
After Latin America, Europe may be in line to produce the next country to legalize. A seemingly odd candidate is buttoned-down Britain. The United Kingdom is already the world's top producer of legal cannabis, largely due to the globe-spanning ambitions of British firm GW Pharmaceuticals. But it's a paradox that Britain's Home Office is denying the right of its own citizens to self-mediate with cannabis. In some good news, the Home Office last week announced that it will allow use medicinal cannabis products in one case—that of 12-year-old epilepsy sufferer Billy Caldwell. The policy is now under review, although Home Secretary Sajid Javid was quick to emphasize that there are "absolutely no plans" for a general legalization.

Progress is also reported from Portugal, which already has perhaps Europe's most progressive cannabis policy, at least where personal possession is concerned. In 2001, it became the only European country to completely remove all penalties for small quantities of illegal drugs, a policy known as "depenalization." In this sense, Portugal is even ahead of the Netherlands, which continues to have (small and largely unenforced) penalties on the books for cannabis possession. On June 15, Portugal's parliament overwhelmingly approved a limited medical marijuana bill, with no provisions for personal cultivation or even herbaceous cannabis. However, in the same strange contradiction seen in Britain, Portugal is already permitting industrial cultivation of medical marijuana on a large scale.

Spain decriminalized way back in 1992. But now the restive region of Catalonia, with a strong separatist movement, last year threw down the gauntlet to Madrid by passing a general legalization law. If Catalonia succeeds in winning its independence, it could become the first European country with legal cannabis.

In Italy, production of medical marijuana is under monopoly by the military. But the army facility in Florence is not keeping up with demand, prompting imports from Canada and the Netherlands. Italy, like Spain, has decriminalized, although enforcement of the non-criminal penalties is definitely harsher there. Several other European countries, from Denmark to Slovenia, are permitting industrial cultivation while failing to loosen up on personal possession or cultivation—a contradiction that may become unsustainable in time.

Opportunities in Oceania
Some of the most encouraging new is report from New Zealand, where the government, responding to popular pressure, has pledged to hold a referendum on cannabis legalization—possibly as early as next year. The government is still equivocating on whether or not the vote will be binding, but even a non-binding vote would be important in establishing a clear mandate for legal marijuana.

In Australia, the Green Party, which has a significant parliamentary bloc, has just come out for legalization. Meanwhile, Australia's first medical marijuana clinic is set to open in Melbourne, under a 2016 program that has been off to a slow start. 

And Australia may seen be looking at its own Catalonia, so to speak. In 2015, Australia's territory of Norfolk Island announced plans for major medical marijuana cultivation as a ticket to the island's economic future. While the plans have not yet moved ahead, Norfolk Island is now in a show-down with Australia's central government. Canberra in 2015 abrogated Norfolk Island's self-governing powers,  prompting the island's leadership to file a complaint with the United Nations. There has even been talk of declaring independence, or seceding from Australia to join with New Zealand.

Challenges in Africa
Morocco is believed to be the world's leading producer of (illegal) cannabis, and last year saw parliamentarians preparing a legalization measure. Although the initiative fell victim to political intrigue—and faced a real challenge in the conservative kingdom anyway—growing unrest in the cannabis-producing Rif Mountains may yet prompt authorities to seek a courageous if obvious solution to the poverty and marginalization in the region.

Last year, another major African producer began to face that music. The land-locked mountain kingdom of Lesotho issued the African continent's first permits for legal cultivation of medical marijuana. Cannabis has long been a mainstay of Lesotho's economy, with the government turning a blind eye to massive cultivation—a kind of de facto legalization.

South African farmers have also launched an initiative to demand legal cannabis as a solution to the country's ongoing agrarian crisis.

We can be sure that eyes across the world will be closely watching how legalization unfolds in Canada to see if this model can be replicated elsewhere on Planet Earth.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now



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