For much of history, cannabis was perfectly legal. However, the wave of cannabis prohibition that started in the 1800s spread throughout nearly the whole world in the 1900s. By the end of the 1990s, there were only a handful of countries left where the drug was still fully legal. The wave of prohibition finally began to roll back in the early 2000s, with many countries around the world legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis. Laws around the world are changing quickly, and it’s hard to stay up to date on the current status of cannabis’ legality. So, right now, where in the world is it legal?
Note: This article focuses exclusively on the legality of recreational cannabis.
Cannabis is illegal throughout most of Africa, with only one exception: In South Africa, citizens are permitted to possess, use, and grow cannabis, but they are forbidden from selling it. Elsewhere in Africa, the drug is completely illegal, although there are a few gray areas.
Cannabis is illegal in Egypt, but its use is so widespread that the law is rarely enforced. The situation in Morocco is much the same, and the country remains one of the world’s largest hashish exporters. In the enclaved country of Lesotho, within the larger country of South Africa, cannabis is illegal, but cultivation is tolerated. This is largely because the nation has a high rate of poverty, and cannabis cultivation is a valuable part of the economy – in the 2000s, Lesotho was responsible for growing 70% of all the cannabis in South Africa.
South & Central America
In 2013, Uruguay was the first country in recent history to fully legalize recreational cannabis. Currently, it is still the only country in this region where cannabis is legal. However, before Uruguay legalized, many South American countries chose to decriminalize the drug. That’s not full legalization, but it means that the penalties for getting caught smoking or holding cannabis are much less severe. Where cannabis is decriminalized, this generally means that the penalty is a fine, rather than time spent in jail or prison, and it won’t go on your record. In South and Central America, cannabis is decriminalized in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia.
Cannabis is illegal throughout Europe, with the sole exception of Georgia. However, many countries have decriminalized small amounts, and there are several countries where use is tolerated in certain areas.
In Spain, the sale and importation of cannabis are both punished with jail time. Using or possessing cannabis is a misdemeanor, and violators are punished with a fine if they are out in public – however, use and possession is allowed in homes and other private areas. Catalonia legalized cannabis in 2017, but the law was declared unconstitutional and reversed. It is legal for citizens to grow cannabis plants, provided that the plants are out of public view. Interestingly, cannabis can be enjoyed without any harassment from police in cannabis social clubs. These are small, non-profit establishments that grow cannabis for use by the club’s members.
Gray Areas in Europe
In the Netherlands, cannabis is technically illegal. However, the sale and use of cannabis is permitted in licensed coffeeshops. Aside from that, cannabis laws are not enforced as strictly as they are elsewhere (although I still don’t advise pushing your luck). Personal possession is decriminalized, and while cultivation for personal use is illegal, this law is not enforced if the grower has 5 plants or less.
Cannabis use is illegal in the Czech Republic, but it is decriminalized up to 10 grams or 5 plants. If you are caught with either of these, you could be subject to a small fine, but it usually isn’t enforced. For this reason, the Czech Republic is a popular vacation spot for cannabis enthusiasts – especially Prague. If you’re visiting, though, make sure you buy your bud from a “reputable” dealer. Many bars and clubs sell good weed under the table, so look for somewhere like that instead of buying dubious goods from sketchy street dealers.
The above countries are the safest places to use cannabis, even though they aren’t completely legal. Elsewhere in Europe, cannabis is either illegal or decriminalized. If you’re willing to risk a fine, but not jail time, remember that cannabis is decriminalized in:
- Portugal, where every drug was decriminalized in 2001.
- Slovenia, where, like Portugal, all drugs have been decriminalized.
- Poland. In 2011, prosecutors were given permission to choose whether or not to prosecute users for the possession of small amounts of cannabis if it is a first offense – so the first time, you might get off easy.
- Malta, although even if you won’t go to jail or prison, you can still be arrested for the purpose of collecting information about drug trafficking.
- Latvia, although beginning with the second offense, possession results in criminal charges instead of just a fine.
- Italy. Take note, though, that you will likely have your passport or driver’s license suspended if you are caught.
After the US’s combined anti-immigrant, anti-“marihuana” campaigns in the 1920s, some people might be surprised to hear that not only is cannabis illegal in Mexico, but it has been illegal there longer than it has been in the US or in Canada. Currently, possession of up to 5 grams has been decriminalized. Mexico’s Supreme Court has ruled that the law banning cannabis use is unconstitutional, and it is likely that cannabis will be fully legalized before the end of 2019.
As of October 17, 2018, cannabis is legal for recreational use in Canada. However, the laws are not yet complete: laws regarding the sale of edibles, topicals, and extracts won’t be rolled out until October 17, 2019. Hopefully these new laws will clear up some of the confusion that the first set of laws introduced.
Throughout the US, cannabis is federally illegal. However, in the midst of an opioid crisis and a host of other, more significant crimes, the federal government has decided to leave dispensaries, companies, and users alone when they are in legal states. Cannabis has been legalized in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Colombia. Beginning in January 2020, cannabis will also be legal in Illinois 2020.
Cannabis has also been decriminalized in Connecticut, Delaware, several countries in Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, and Rhode Island.
Gray Areas Around the World
As you’ve seen, there aren’t a lot of places around the world where cannabis is fully legal. However, there are tons of countries where cannabis use is ignored – either because there aren’t enough resources to deal with arresting cannabis users, or because the police simply have more important things to deal with. Some of these gray areas are:
- Australia. Cannabis use is extremely common in Australia, even though it is illegal. Many Australian citizens and politicians support legalization. Whether cannabis is fully illegal or decriminalized depends on the state.
- Cambodia. Cannabis is illegal here, but the law is rarely enforced. There are even “happy” restaurants across the country that serve food containing cannabis, or with cannabis as a side dish.
- Thailand. Like Cambodia, cannabis prohibition is present, but rarely enforced.
- Nepal. Cannabis has been illegal since 1973, but Nepalese cannabis is cheap and easy to find. Police rarely take the time to deal with any cannabis-related offense.
- Israel. Until the third offense, cannabis possession does not result in criminal charges. Possession in a private residence is not punished at all.
- Jamaica. Despite Jamaica’s association with Rastafarianism, cannabis is illegal in Jamaica. However, it is decriminalized, and it is fully legal for Rastafari.
- Bangladesh. Cannabis has been officially banned since 1989, but the law has had little real effect. Cannabis is often sold openly throughout the country, and vendors rarely encounter legal trouble.
- India. Despite India’s long history with cannabis, the drug is currently illegal. However, it is still used prevalently, usually in the form of bhang, a low-THC drink.
Despite a recent move toward legalization in Western countries, cannabis is still illegal in most of the world. There are legal countries scattered across the globe, and many more areas where cannabis use is decriminalized, or where prohibition is rarely enforced. Mexico will likely legalize very soon, and Norway is in the process of decriminalization. Progress is still being made.