April 20, 2019
Legal or Illegal: Status Of Cannabis Legalization Around The World On 4/20

Today is April 20 -- or more colloquially, 4/20 -- the unofficial holiday which celebrates cannabis and the surrounding culture. Today is also the day that the community advocates for legalization, not just in the U.S. but around the world. So, in honor of the day, here's a look at the legal status of cannabis around the world.

A Mishmash Of Conflicting Laws: The United States, Australia, Jamaica

To be clear, cannabis is illegal in the United States in terms of federal law. In theory, one phone call from the Justice Department could result in every "legal" cannabis dispensary in Colorado, California, and other states being shut down, with the employees and patrons being hauled off to jail. However, the policy of the federal government has been one of looking the other way at states' pot laws, as long as certain conditions are met, such as keeping it out of the hands of children. That has led to a mishmash of conflicting state and local laws. In certain states (Colorado, California, others) it's legal for recreational use; in some, it's legal for medical use (Illinois, New Mexico, others); and in others, you will be hauled to the clink if you possess so much as a milligram (Texas, Mississippi, etc.).

A somewhat similar situation exists in Australia, according to Life Hacker. In essence, medical cannabis is legal at the federal level in the Land Down Under, although details vary by state. It's been decriminalized for personal use in the Northern Territory, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory.

A woman lighting a marijuana cigarette.
Wikimedia Commons | Chuck Grimmette

And in Jamaica, users who identify with the Rastafari Movement, who consider cannabis a sacrament, can possess "small amounts" without fear of legal repercussions.

NOTE: The rest of this post deals only with recreational marijuana, and does not consider exceptions for medical use.

Fully Legal: Uruguay, Canada, Maybe North Korea

In several countries, cannabis has been "decriminalized," but it's only legal in a few countries. The two where it's known to be fully legal are Canada and Uruguay. Over in North Korea, there are conflicting reports. According to The Guardian, some say that cannabis grows openly in ditches and that people smoke it openly with no fear of social stigma or legal repercussions. Other reports say that the oppressive regime zealously and harshly prosecutes cannabis cultivation and use. It's certainly not a situation that anyone will want to test out themselves.

Decriminalized: Too Many Places To List

The list of nations where cannabis has been decriminalized is well over a hundred entries long; too many to list here. Instead, this is a good time for a discussion of the difference between legalization and decriminalization.

In a broad sense, "decriminalization" simply means that you're not going to be prosecuted criminally for possession, up to a point. Police may still confiscate your bud, but if you are caught with, say, a few grams, you won't run the risk of going to jail. At most, you may receive a fine.

"Legalization," on the other hand, means that it's licensed, regulated, and taxed like any other legal product.

This creates something of a conflict in The Netherlands. Long considered a stoners' paradise, the country actually tolerates but doesn't officially and legally allow its use in pot shops, and indeed anyone over 18 can walk into a pot shop and light up, and the police don't give a darn. Grow it, transport it, or possess more than a few grams, however, and it's a crime. Which means essentially that smoking it at a coffee shop (as pot shops are called in the country) is fine, but growing it and purchasing it there constitutes a crime.

Illegal, But The Police Look The Other Way: South Africa, India, Lots Of Other Places

Let's face it: police in certain countries have bigger things on their plates than people getting high. In countries such as India, Pakistan, South Africa, and others, the legal system officially considers cannabis illegal, but enforcement is simply not a priority.

Very Much Illegal: Most Of Asia And Africa, Other Places

You may not be surprised to read that cannabis is fully illegal in countries such as Uganda or Saudi Arabia. What may surprise you, however, is that some of the most progressive and liberal countries in the world zealously and aggressively prosecute cannabis use.

In Sweden, for example, there's no medical cannabis, no decriminalization, and police even run a "disturb and destroy" program as part of its zero-tolerance approach to cannabis, as The Local reports. Similarly, Japan will put you behind bars for five years for possession, and there is no medical use there, either, according to Japan Hemp.


Of course, laws change by the day, and the information provided in this article may be based on outdated sources. Further, "decriminalization" and "police look the other way" are vague terms that have little legal meaning. So if you light up in, say, India, and you're seen by a cop who's having a bad day, the country's unofficial policy of limited-to-no enforcement may suddenly become meaningless, and you'll find yourself up a very unpleasant creek. Or in Jamaica, a judge may not buy your claim that you're a Rastafarian, especially if you're a foreigner dressed as a tourist.

So long story short: check the local laws if you intend to light up. Have a happy 4/20.