2018 saw historic strides toward the liberation of the cannabis plant, from the proverbial four corners of the Earth — North America to the Antipodes. While Canadian legalization garnered the big headlines, there were significant breaks with the global prohibition regime in several other countries, including some seemingly unlikely candidates in regions where the anti-cannabis stigma is deeply entrenched.
A review of the worldwide advances for the right to cannabis over the past 12 months gives the sense that the international community may finally be on the cusp of an authentic paradigm shift. In the media shadow of the big news from Canada, legal changes in Asia and Africa may be an even more hopeful sign, as these are regions where the prohibitionist dogma has traditionally been strongest.
Breakthroughs in Asia
The most recent such development came from Southeast Asia. In a region where in some countries you can still get the death penalty for cannabis, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly on Dec. 25 voted unanimously, by 166-0 with 13 abstentions, to legalize medical marijuana. Strangely enough, this first country in Southeast Asia to liberalize cannabis policy has been under a military junta since a 2014 coup d’etat, with powers curtailed for the Legislative Assembly.
The legislature was nonetheless allowed to amend the harsh Narcotic Drugs Act of 1979 to allow not only possession and use but production, import and export of cannabis for medical purposes. The country’s nominal ruler, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, must still approve the legislation, but this appears to be a mere formality.
To be sure, using cannabis without a doctor’s supervision remains a crime in Thailand with very stiff penalties: five years in the slammer and a hefty fine for any quantity up to 10 kilograms, and up to 15 years and far higher fines for any greater quantity. Police in Thailand are actually empowered to order spot urine tests of anyone they stop who is suspected of cannabis use, motorists or pedestrians. A positive test is treated as possession. And nothing suggests this is about to change.
While practitioners of traditional Thai herbal medicine expressed concern about corporate cannabis moving in to privatize the country’s ancient sativa landraces, reform advocates hailed the bill as a crack in the prohibitionist edifice. “This is the first baby step forward,” Chokwan Chopaka of the pro-legalization Highland Network told Reuters.
Other such baby steps were seen in Asia in 2018. In October, Malaysia announced a move to abolish capital punishment following an outcry against the death penalty imposed on a producer of medicinal cannabis oil. Not only will the producer, Muhammad Lukman, almost certainly escape the gallows, but Malaysian lawmakers even broached legalizing medical marijuana.
Activists will have to keep the pressure on, however. Advocacy group Lawyers for Liberty in early December issued a statement protesting that despite the government’s promise, a bill to repeal the death penalty had still not been introduced.
South Korea meanwhile actually did move to legalize medical marijuana products, although not actual herbaceous cannabis. The reform calls for listing approved products (such as the CBD-based pharmaceutical Epidiolex) and establishing protocols for patient access. The country’s National Assembly approved the amendment to the Narcotics Control Act on Nov. 23. The next step is issuance of enabling regulations by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.
Progress in Africa
Africa’s cannabis laws are generally less draconian than Asia’s, though still pretty rigidly closed. But here too progress was seen, even in some unlikely places.
Decriminalization came to South Africa in September, when the country’s Constitutional Court upheld a lower court ruling finding that sections of the 1992 Drugs & Drug Trafficking Act concerning cannabis were unconstitutional. Personal cultivation, as well as private use, will now be permitted in South Africa.
There’s little doubt the judiciary was responding to popular sentiment. Pressure has been mounting since 2017, when South Africa’s struggling farmers launched an initiative to demand legal cultivation of dagga (as cannabis is locally known) in the country.
Just weeks after the high court ruling, South Africa’s small landlocked neighbor, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, announced its first contracts for commercial cultivation of cannabis. Lesotho has close economic ties to South Africa and has long been a major cannabis producer, with authorities turning a blind eye to widespread cultivation in what some have called de facto decriminalization. Now there is talk of a “cannabis common market” for South Africa and its neighbors.
More surprising was the move by authoritarian Zimbabwe to legalize cannabis for medical and scientific use. The official decree issued in April stated that individuals and businesses will be allowed to apply for licenses to cultivate cannabis for such designated purposes. The fact that Zimbabwe has been a closed society — still emerging from decades of rule by strongman Robert Mugabe, and the transition to full democracy by no means assured — makes this development even more significant.
Momentum in the Commonwealth
But if normalization of cannabis by authoritarian regimes is meaningful, so too is its embrace by leaders of the democratic world. South Africa and Lesotho were among five members of the Commonwealth (the union of 53 English-speaking democracies formerly known as the British Commonwealth) to open legal space for cannabis over the past year. The most dramatic move, of course, was cannabis legalization in Canada, which took effect in October.
Eyes of advocates around the world are now on Canada to watch how the legalization process unfolds there. So far it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, with authorities and producers alike facing challenges in meeting demand and negotiating a patchwork of provincial policies.
Then, the United Kingdom itself took the move of legalizing medical marijuana including herbaceous cannabis. The Nov. 1 decision by the Home Office makes cannabis available by prescription, and actually reschedules the plant. The UK is now one of but a handful of countries to place cannabis in Schedule II, for drugs with a legitimate medical application, as opposed to the more restrictive Schedule I.
Finally, on Dec. 11 New Zealand passed a medical marijuana bill laying the groundwork for a legal cannabis industry. The Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Bill mandates changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act to be phased in over the next year, but provides immediate statutory defense for the terminally ill. This will allow an estimated 25,000 patients in palliative care to access cannabis.
Days after the bill was passed, New Zealand’s government confirmed that a promised referendum on general cannabis legalization will be held in 2020.
Overall, the prognosis is good for continued momentum toward opening legal space for cannabis on the global stage in the coming period — with all the contradictions and challenges this implies.
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