Cannabis policy: status and recent developments


Under international laws, cultivation, supply and possession of cannabis should be allowed only for ‘medical and scientific purposes’. In general, possession of the drug for personal use should be a crime, to deter use, and most countries make this punishable by imprisonment. In recent years, however, several jurisdictions have reduced their penalties for cannabis users, and some have permitted supply of the drug, allowing us to observe different control models and their consequences. Policy discussions are complicated by conflicting claims — decriminalisation or legalisation, medical or recreational use, policy success or failure — and this page aims to clarify some issues.

How is international cannabis policy developing?


While international laws oblige countries to impose criminal penalties for supply of drugs for non-medical purposes, some jurisdictions are creating exceptions. A system of cannabis supply has been illegal but tolerated in the Netherlands since the 1970s. ‘Medical marijuana’ was legalised by popular vote in California, in 1996, to treat symptoms including chronic pain. As there is no objective test for pain, public access to legal smokable cannabis became a formality. In Europe, since the late 1990s, decriminalisation and harm reduction policies had less negative impact than had been feared. The 2008 economic recession forced cuts to law enforcement budgets. In 2012, with medical cannabis available in 18 US states, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington approved systems of cannabis supply for recreational, not just medical, use. In the following year, the government of Uruguay passed a law to establish a system of supply via pharmacies and social clubs. More US states have legalised cannabis since then.


The terms ‘depenalisation’, ‘decriminalisation’ and ‘legalisation’ are often used in the drug control debate. These terms are briefly distinguished as follows.

Depenalisation: something remains a criminal offence, but is no longer punished, e.g. now the case may be closed.

Decriminalisation:  an offence is reclassified from criminal to non-criminal. It remains an offence and may be punished by the police or other agencies, rather than a court.

Legalisation:  there is a move from a prohibited behaviour (criminal or not) to a permitted behaviour. This is usually used to describe supply, rather than possession, of drugs.

The video ‘What is decriminalisation?’ provides more detailed explanation.

Cannabis policy models in Europe

Personal possession

While all EU Member States treat possession of cannabis for personal use as an offence, over one third do not allow prison as a penalty for minor offences (see map below). In many of the countries where the law allows imprisonment for such cannabis possession, national guidelines advise against it. More details are available at Penalties at a glance.

Figure: Penalties in laws: possibility of incarceration for possession of cannabis for personal use (minor offences)

Models of legal supply

No national government in Europe supports legalisation of cannabis sale for recreational use, and all countries have prison sentences for illegal supply. However, several draft laws have been proposed to national parliaments in the last few years, as well as some initiatives in regions or cities that were rejected at national level.


In the Netherlands, coffeeshops are outlets for the sale and (often on-site consumption) of cannabis, which started to appear in the 1970s. They are licensed by the municipality, and about two-thirds of Dutch municipalities do not allow them. There were 591 coffeeshops in 2014, with nearly one third in Amsterdam; numbers have been falling since 2000. Sale and personal possession is punishable by imprisonment under Dutch law, but coffeeshops are tolerated provided they adhere to strict criteria published in a directive of the public prosecutor. However, there is no toleration of production of the stock, creating a legal anomaly known in the Netherlands as the ‘back door problem’.

Cannabis social clubs

In a number of European countries, groups of users have formed ‘cannabis social clubs’. They claim that, in principle, if cultivation of one cannabis plant is tolerated for one person’s use, then 20 plants together might be tolerated for a club of 20 people. No national government in Europe accepts this, though some regions in Spain have attempted to pass regulations to limit the proliferation of such clubs. In 2015, the Spanish Supreme Court clearly stated that ‘organised, institutionalised and persistent cultivation and distribution of cannabis among an association open to new members is considered drug trafficking’.

Young Europeans’ views on drug control

One of the few comparable surveys of the strength of public opinion in the European Union is the Flash Eurobarometer, which interviews approximately 500 young people (aged 15–24) in each country. In 2011 and 2014, young people were asked for their opinions on drugs. More than half of the respondents were in favour of banning the sale of cannabis, rather than regulating it, but that proportion declined over the period, from 59 % to 53 %.

Further reading

Cannabis policy models outside Europe


Four basic models of legal cannabis production and supply are now operating. Some jurisdictions allow more than one of these models.

1. Taxed, commercial supply. Many licensed growers supply many licensed retail outlets. This is the model in Colorado, Washington State, Alaska and Oregon, and it is the model approved in 2016 in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.

2. Government supply. The government contracts a limited number of growers and controls supply through outlets. This is one of three models in Uruguay.

3. Permitting home grow (and giving small amounts). No tax, no sales outlets. This is the only model in Washington DC, and one of three models in Uruguay. Home grow is also permitted in seven of the eight American states with commercial supply models; only Washington State does not allow it.

4. Social clubs. A group of people grow cannabis in a collective and use it. No tax, no sales outlets. This one of three models in Uruguay.

The ‘Further reading’ section contains links to scientific reports on these models, where available. More details can be found in our Legal supply of cannabis: recent developments

However, these are not the only models possible. The article ‘The 10 Ps of marijuana legalization’ outlines the many different possible choices when designing a model of legal cannabis supply.

Key characteristics of the US legal context:

  • State laws can be passed by initiative or referendum, rather than parliamentary debate.
  • ‘Medical’ cannabis had been legal and openly available for several years before recreational use was permitted.
  • Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines is permitted.
  • The right to ‘commercial freedom of speech’ limits the state’s ability to regulate advertising.

Further reading

News updates on cannabis policy

You can find below objective information on cannabis policy changes. The news is limited to key news events, such as when a major policy decision is taken or a significant report is released. The news updates below concentrate on policies where cannabis is clearly used for recreational purposes. 

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Related links and videos

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