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World of marijuana: a global look at the controversial drug

December 10, 2013

BY: Justin Boyle

Note from the editor: This is the first of a four-part series exploring drug trends around the world. Check back soon for part two, which examines alcohol use.

What is marijuana, anyway? Besides the fact that it reigns as the most widely used illicit substance on Earth (3.9 percent of 15 to 64 year olds partake according to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes), people around the world just can't seem to agree on whether it's a dangerous illegal drug, helpful prescription medicine or harmless recreational vegetable. With that in mind, here's a deeper look at how weed, pot, reefer, dagga, Mary Jane (or whatever kids these days are calling the dried flowers and buds of genus Cannabis) are used across the globe.

North America

Best to start in the U.S., where disagreements over marijuana between individual states and the federal government seem to be making news every other month. In fact, according to Governing.com, 42 percent of states (and the District of Columbia) have enacted prescription-based relaxations on federal marijuana prohibition as of October, and NORML reports that 15 have at least partially decriminalized possession. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have passed laws legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana for the 21-and-over crowd.

This domino effect in U.S. marijuana law may be surprising and dismaying to some, but there's a case to be made that the end of federal prohibition is only a matter of time. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as of 2012, about 44 percent of U.S. citizens over the age of 26 have used marijuana at some point in their life, and the two other North American nations have already slackened the harsh anti-marijuana laws of the 20th century: a Canada.com timeline shows that Canadians have had prescription access to marijuana since 2001, and The New York Times reports that Mexican authorities officially decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009.

As far as methods of use are concerned, North American marijuana users typically combust and inhale the active parts of the plant. Other methods include vaporization -- a process of heating the active compounds into vapor without burning the vegetable matter -- and adding extractives such as hashish oil to food or tobacco.

Asia

Marijuana as medicine might seem like a relatively novel concept to many, but ancient Asian cultures were on to the palliative properties of the plant well before prohibition was ever considered. Folklore in China and India mentions marijuana tea or extractives used as remedies at least as far back as 4,700 years. In Chinese text, the healing properties of marijuana are listed alongside those of ginseng and ephedra -- two mainstays of folk medicine that persist today.

Modern China and most other nations in Asia today enforce a strict prohibition on marijuana, both recreational and medicinal. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that five people were reportedly sentenced to death in 2009 for violating Vietnamese hashish trafficking laws. iMarijuana.com shows that Japan levies very severe penalties for possession of even trace amounts of the drug, and Singapore has also sentenced people to death for violating its marijuana possession laws, according to The Real Singapore. In contrast, Cannabis Culture Magazine indicates that Russia downgraded small-quantity drug possession to a level of offense punishable by fine or community service in 2004, and the Huffington Post reports that Turkey and Israel have somewhat relaxed prohibitions.

The approach to marijuana as a creature comfort enjoyed a long life in India -- it was as legal as alcohol until officials enacted a sweeping narcotic prohibition in 1985 (under international pressure, according to a 2012 piece in The Times of India). Despite the official prohibition, spiritual and cultural associations with cannabis persist in many sectors of the country and enforcement may not be particularly strict. Indian marijuana users often partake of the plant in a concoction known as bhang, a milk-and-cannabis tea flavored with nuts and spices that's reportedly as old as recorded history.

Europe

Europe is home to some longstanding relaxations of marijuana prohibition -- notably the Netherlands, where Amsterdam has been known the world over as a safe haven for cannabis culturati to puff, chew or sip their preferred preparation. Contrary to popular belief, however, marijuana isn't actually legal in the Dutch capital or the rest of the Netherlands. According to CNN, people can possess up to 5 grams under the country's tolerance policy, though public smoking is confined to cannabis coffee shops. Amsterdam's marijuana mojo could be in danger, however. As Forbes notes, tighter restrictions, such as an upcoming law requiring all cannabis cafes near secondary schools to close during school hours, may make it harder to light up in the city.

A survey of iMarijuana.com's Laws by Country section gives more surprisng info: In Portugal, where officials made headlines in 2004 when prohibitions were relaxed on soft drugs and hard drugs alike, marijuana isn't quite legal. Even in Spain, where private, in-home use of recreational marijuana is not classified as criminal, or Belgium, where public possession of small quantities is legal for adults, purchase or sale of the drug remains forbidden. The Czech Republic takes the top European spot for permissiveness with its liberal decriminalization policy, refraining from punishing marijuana consumption and allowing possession of up to 15 grams before misdemeanor punishment becomes an option.

Many European nations have been taking steps toward more tolerant policies of marijuana restriction, particularly in cases where firm prohibitions and strict judicial punishments have been expensive and have done little to curb usage.

South America

A sea change is underway south of the Panama Canal. No full-fledged legalization has taken place, but several nations on the South American continent have moved to decriminalize possession and personal use of marijuana to a certain extent.

For starters, a Time magazine report shows that the Argentine Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that it would be unconstitutional to punish citizens using marijuana for personal consumption. In the ensuing couple of years, according to the Transnational Institute, top officials in Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador enacted legislation to provide exceptions to prohibition for possession of the plant in personal quantities. Meanwhile, Paraguay removed punishments for small-quantity possession in 1988 and personal use has been acceptable in Chile for almost 20 years. Cannabis Culture Magazine notes that Brazil and Venezuela decriminalized possession in 2004 (although Brazilian citizens caught in possession may be subject to mandatory drug treatment).

Uruguay has taken the most extreme progressive stance of all its neighbors, working to establish a state-run marijuana distribution business that plans to sell the stuff for one dollar per gram, according to an October 2013 report in The Guardian.

… and beyond

All this detail, and it's still just the tip of the leafy green iceberg. Battles over the proper legal status of marijuana continue to rage in Australia and South Africa. The truth remains that whether it's a toxin, a medicine or a social recreation, marijuana presents a host of complicated issues and no one-size-fits-all answer seems to be in sight. Check out some of the sources below for more knowledge.

Sources

"20 Legal Medical Marijuana States and DC," ProCon.org, September 16, 2013, http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000881

"Decriminalized marijuana: Top 10 countries in the world," Addiction Blog, November 11, 2010, http://addictionblog.org/the-news/decriminalized-marijuana-top-10-countries-in-the-world/

"Drug Law Reform in Latin America," Transnational Institute, 2013, http://www.druglawreform.info/en/country-information

"Drugs of Abuse: Marijuana," National Institute on Drug Abuse, December 2012, http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/marijuana

"Five Condemned To Death For Hashish In Vietnam," Cannabis Culture, Steve Elliot, December 28, 2009, http://www.cannabisculture.com/content/five-condemned-death-hashish-vietnam

"Ganja decrim sweeps the globe!," Cannabis Culture, Reverend Damuzi, August 18, 2004, http://www.cannabisculture.com/articles/3576.html

"History of Cannabis in India," Psychology Today, Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D., June 16, 2011, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-teenage-mind/201106/history-cannabis-in-india

"How Latin America May Lead the World in Decriminalizing Drug Use," Time, Alfonso Serrano, October 9, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/10/09/how-latin-america-may-lead-the-world-in-decriminalizing-drug-use/

"Laws," iMarijuana.com, http://www.imarijuana.com/laws

"Marijuana - The First Twelve Thousand Years," Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/history/first12000/1.htm

"Marijuana Top Illegal Drug Used Worldwide, Global Survey Shows," Huffington Post, Maria Cheng, August 28, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/28/marijuana-use-worldwide-illegal-drugs-substance-abuse_n_3831050.html

"Mexico Legalizes Drug Possession," The New York Times, The Associated Press, August 21, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/world/americas/21mexico.html

"State Marijuana Laws Map," Governing.com, October 2013, http://www.governing.com/gov-data/safety-justice/state-marijuana-laws-map-medical-recreational.html

"Singapore Should Review the Use of the Death Penalty for Cannabis Offences," The Real Singapore, September 4, 2013, http://therealsingapore.com/content/singapore-should-review-use-death-penalty-cannabis-offences

"States That Have Decriminalized," NORML, 2013, http://norml.org/marijuana/personal/item/states-that-have-decriminalized

"The World's Most Marijuana-Friendly Countries," Huffington Post, Katy Hall and Jan Diehm, August 27, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/27/marijuana-world-map-_n_3805800.html

"Timeline: Medical Marijuana in Canada," Canada.com, December 12, 2011, http://www.canada.com/health/Timeline+Medical+marijuana+Canada/5838175/story.html

"Uruguay sets price of legalised cannabis at $1 a gram," The Guardian, Uki Goni, October 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/22/uruguay-legal-cannabis-1-dollar-gram

"World Drug Report 2013: Cannabis," United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, http://www.unodc.org/wdr/en/cannabis.html

"World Marijuana Laws: Where To Smoke Weed," Huffington Post, February 25, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/20/world-marijuana-laws_n_2167537.html#slide=1783283