Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Legal issues of cannabis
- This article has a focus on the law and enforcement aspects of growing, transporting, selling and using cannabis. For other aspects, see cannabis.
Many countries have laws regarding the cultivation, possession, supply or use of cannabis (hemp). Non-drug cannabis products (eg fibre and seed) are perfectly legal in many countries, and these countries may license cultivation for these purposes. Generally however the herb is a controlled substance in most, though its use is condoned in some locales for medicinal purposes. In some countries, such as Germany and Portugal, cannabis drug material is legal for personal use, though restrictions may apply to its sale, distribution or consumption. In the U.S.A (nationwide, in 2004) a person is arrested on "marijuana charges" every 42 seconds.
Cannabis for drug purposes
Cannabis was criminalized across most of the world in the early parts of the 20th century. The reasons for and approaches to criminalization vary from country to country. For example, in the United Kingdom, cultivation and use of cannabis was generally outlawed in 1928 after the UK became a signatory to the International Opium Convention, held in Geneva in 1925, but tincture of cannabis remained available as a prescription only drug (POM) until it was banned in 1971 under the then new Misuse of Drugs Act, while in the United States the significant legislation was the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, a federal culmination of many separate state laws that had been enacted in the previous years. Some claim that the U.S. laws may have been in response to lobbying by makers of synthetic fibers that competed with hemp.
Laws usually govern distribution, cultivation, and possession for personal use. Enforcement of the law varies from country to country. Large-scale domestic Marijuana growing operations, or grow-ops, are frequently targeted by police in raids to discourage the spread and marketing of the drug.
After 1969, a time categorized by widespread use of cannabis (drug) as a recreational drug, a wave of legislation in America sought to reduce the penalties for the simple possession of marijuana, making it punishable by confiscation and/or a fine rather than imprisonment. Decriminalization is a drug supply-side control strategy that discourages users, but largely removes them from the criminal justice system, while imposing stiff penalties on those who traffic and sell the drug on the black market. Some of the first examples of this adjustment in drug policy were found in: Alabama, when state judges decided to no longer impose five year mandatory minimum sentences for small possession (one marijuana cigarette); Missouri, when their legislature reformed statutes that made second possession offenses no longer punishable by life in prison; and in Georgia, when that state revised second sale offenses to minors no longer punishable by death.
Soon after these developments, an official decriminalization movement was started in 1973 with Oregon prompting other states, like Colorado, Alaska, Ohio, and California, to follow suit in 1975. By 1978, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, and Nebraska also had some form of marijuana decriminalization. In 2001, Nevada reduced marijuana possession from a felony offense to a misdemeanor. 
Regardless of these states' rights, decriminalization was never adopted as a national affair, principally because U.S. Congress disagrees with passing a version of legislation on the federal level. However, several petitions for cannabis rescheduling in the United States have been filed to remove marijuana from the "Schedule I" category of tightly-restricted drugs that have no medical use. The Controlled Substance Act allows the executive branch to legalize medical and recreational use of marijuana without any action by Congress; however, such an initiative would depend on the findings of the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services on certain scientific and medical issues specified by the Act. 
In some countries, law enforcement agents exercise discretion in following the letter of the law regarding cannabis. In the Netherlands, for instance, possession and use of cannabis is a misdemeanor; however, a widespread policy of non-enforcement has resulted in de facto decriminalization. Cannabis there may be purchased in licensed "coffee shops"; however, these shops must be supplied through illegal channels. See Drug policy of the Netherlands.
In the United Kingdom, law enforcement officials have expressed similar intentions: in 2002, police commander Brian Paddick in Brixton, England, instructed his officers not to arrest those found in possession of cannabis, and instead to issue on-the-spot warnings and confiscate the drugs. This move caused considerable controversy, though it had a positive effect on the crime rate of the Brixton area and resulted in a re-evaluation of the criminal status of cannabis in Britain: in 2004 Cannabis was reclassified from Class B to Class C which, while it does not effectively decriminalize the drug, does reduce the risk of arrest in cases of simple possession. Class C is considered to be a category of less harmful drugs, and includes pharmaceutical tranquilizers and anabolic steroids. Possession and trafficking are still punishable by law, though to a lesser extent than when cannabis was classified as a Class B substance.
While still technically illegal, in the vast majority of cases the police will no longer arrest users for possession or smoking. Some exceptions to this are:
- if offender is 17 years of age or younger
- if offender is found in possession of a large amount of cannabis
- if offender is near a school or playground, or is suspected of attempting to give or sell cannabis to children
The Home Office has taken out full-page advertisements in national newspapers, as well as radio and television advertisements, informing people about the reclassification and reminding people that it is still illegal to smoke cannabis.
The United Kingdom has a political party devoted to the full legalization of cannabis, called the Legalise Cannabis Alliance.
The state of South Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have decriminalized possession of small quantities of cannabis, and growing limited numbers of plants for personal use; the government charges an on-the-spot fine of A$150 for people caught with less than 100gm. Western Australia has also recently decriminalized possession, with a fine of A$150 for possession of up to 30gm, or they can avoid paying the fine by attending a "Cannabis Education Session" on the dangers of cannabis. Police interest in personal usage and non-commercial growers in the rest of Australia appears to be limited with police given wide discretion.
As of early 2000s, Canada and some other countries have started to recognize medicinal use of cannabis separately from "normal" possession. In 2003, Canada began the process of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the proposed law, possession of up to 30 grams would not be considered a criminal offense and the offender would be charged a fine. Amounts greater than 30 grams could cause the individual to be charged with "possession with the intent to traffic". The legislation died on the table in 2004 due to elections and has since been reintroduced. Canada also has a political party devoted to the full legalization of marijuana, called the Marijuana Party of Canada.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, it is a criminal offence to use, cultivate or supply cannabis. Penalties, which include heavy fines and/or jail, are strict for those prosecuted for cultivation and supply but usually more lenient for use. Even so, a criminal conviction for possession of cannabis may make it impossible to get some types of jobs or to travel in some countries. Possession of 28 grams of cannabis or more may lead to a charge of possession for the purpose of supply or sale.
In Norway, all illegal substances are considered equal (for the law). Several propositions have been raised suggesting the use of a simplified procedure involving a fine and no permanent records as opposed to the current arrests for even minor cannabis offences.
Despite Italy has been one of the biggest suppliers of cannabis in the history, for industrial purposes of course, in the nineteenth century cannabis cultivation is outlawed for any purpose: industrial, medical and as a drug. Anyway the strength of punishment has varied substiantially in the last fifty years. Especially in the seventies a referundum , promoted by the italian radical party depenalized cannabis and until 2001 it was no more considered as a heavy drug. Then after a progressive depenalization process, that had its apex with the left oriented goverment from 1996 to 2001, italians have seen an agressive return to past with Berlusconi and his right oriented government, that imposed penalties comparable with those used for heavy drugs. As an example you can carry with you more cocaine than cannabis.
Death penalty for possession or trafficking
Several countries have either carried out or legislated capital punishment for cannabis use or trafficking.
In 1996 in the United States, Newt Gingrich, who was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives at the time, planned to introduce a mandatory death penalty for a second offense of smuggling 50 grams of marijuana into the United States, in the proposed law H.R. 4170. The proposal failed. Under the 1994 Crime Act, the threshold for sentencing a death penalty in relation to marijuana is the involvement with the cultivation or distribution of 60,000 marijuana plants (or seedlings) or 60,000 kilograms of marijuana.
Cannabis for non drug purposes
Hemp is the common name for cannabis and the name most used (in English) when this annual herb is grown for non drug purposes. These include the industrial purposes for which cultivation licences may be issued in the European Union (EU). When grown for industrial purposes hemp is called, often, industrial hemp, and a common product is fibre for use in a variety of different ways. Fuel is often a by-product of hemp cultivation.
Hemp may be grown also for food (the seed) but in the UK at least (and probably in other EU countries) cultivation licences are not available for this purpose. Within Defra (the UK's Department for the Environment, Food and the Rural Affairs) hemp is treated as purely a non-food crop, despite the fact that seed can and does appear on the UK market as a perfectly legal food product.
In the UK, at least, the seed and fibre have been always perfectly legal products. Cultivation for non drug purposes was however completely prohibitted from 1928 until circa 1998, when Home Office industrial-purpose licences became available under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
If industrial strains of the herb are intended for legal use within the EU then they are bred to be compliant with regulations which limit potential THC content to 0.3%. (THC content is a measure of the herb's drug potential and can reach 20% or more in drug strains). In Canada the THC limit is 1%.
Millennia of selective breeding have resulted in varieties that look quite different. Also, breeding since circa 1930 has focussed quite specifically on producing strains which would perform very poorly as sources of drug material.
Hemp grown for fibre is planted closely, resulting in tall, slender plants with long fibers. Ideally, according to Defra in 2004, the herb should be harvested before it flowers. This early cropping is because fibre quality begins to decline as flowering starts and, incidentally, this cropping also pre-empts the herbís maturity as potentially a source of drug material. UK licence conditions actually oblige farmers, however, to allow some flowering so that flower material can be tested for its drug potential.
- Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party
- Drug policy of the Netherlands
- Cannabis: Health issues
- Cannabis: legalise and utilise
- Cannabis reform at the international level
- Jack Herer
- Legalise Cannabis Alliance
- Medical marijuana
- Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs
- Soap bar
- War on Drugs
(note that the following sites may express opinions for or against cannabis, and you are urged to visit more than one of the following for balance)
- Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base
- A Brief History of the War on Drugs
- How Marijuana Became Illegal Smokedot.org's on the history of criminalisation.
- The Emperor Wears No Clothes Jack Herer's book, partially online.
- National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)
- Drug information about marijuana from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy
- War on Drugs FAQ
- Marijuana Policy Project
- Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy: Senate hearing on cannabis.
- Vote Hemp
- North American Industrial Hemp council
- alt.hemp FAQ
- A history of the Marihuana Tax Act
- Kentucky Hemp Outfitters' Library
- Jack Herer and The Emperor Wears No Clothes
- Hemp For Victory, (a 1942 US government propaganda movie, urging farmers to grow hemp "for the war effort")
- Reefer Madness (The archetypal sensationalized anti-drug movie. This 1938 propaganda film dramatizes the "violent narcotic's ... soul destroying" effects on unwary teens, and their hedonistic exploits enroute to the bottom)
- Science and the End of Marijuana Prohibition, John Gettman, May 13, 1999.
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