Here’s what you need to know about how US marijuana policies and laws compare to those of other countries.
What does Biden’s offer of mass pardons mean for those convicted of simple possession of marijuana?
More than 600,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana in the United States in 2018, according to the latest data available of the American Civil Liberties Union. (Not all arrests lead to charges and convictions.) But Biden’s announcement applies only to federal prosecutions, a fraction of those affected by possession laws. His power to pardon does not extend to those convicted under state law.
“Many, if not most, people serving sentences are in state systems,” said Griffen Thorne, an attorney at Harris Bricken, a law firm that works with cannabis companies. (Biden also called on state governors on Thursday to offer similar pardons.)
No one is serving time in federal prison just for the crime of marijuana possession, White House officials say said Thursdayalthough more than 6,500 people may have such convictions on their records.
How do US policies compare to the rest of the world?
Possessing or consuming marijuana for any reason is illegal under federal law, but Starting from February, 37 states and the District of Columbia had authorized it for medical purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Additionally, at least 19 states and DC had legalized recreational marijuana for adults by May.
Technically, “every state-level marijuana program is a complete violation of federal law,” Thorne said, but the feds have “turned a blind eye.”
A handful of countries have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, although there are many gray areas and caveats. Places where it is legal to use cannabis for recreational purposes include Uruguay, Canada and Malta. In some cases, there are restrictions on the age, quantities and transportation of the drug.
South Africa has decriminalized adult cannabis use in private, although buy or sell it remains illegal. Thailand legalized the cultivation and trade of marijuana this year. However, government officials have warned that “non-productive” use of the drug – such as smoking it outside – could lead to penalties such as short prison terms.
Germany’s coalition government pledged before taking office last year legalize recreational use of cannabis. Australia allows medical marijuana, but home recreational use is legal only in the Australian Capital Territory, encompassing Canberra and surrounding townships. Personal use of limited amounts of cannabis is tolerated in the Netherlands, although it is technically illegal.
“Certainly there are other countries that have liberal policies and are more consistent about it,” said Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt University professor who specializes in drug law. “But because we have so many states that have legalized adult recreational or medical use, I would consider the United States to be one of the more progressive countries.”
Is the world moving towards legalizing marijuana for personal use?
Momentum toward legalizing marijuana is accelerating in Latin America and Africa, Thorne said.
A 2018 Constitutional Court ruling paved the way for South Africa to decriminalize personal use, and President Cyril Ramaphosa said this year that his government would work to strengthen its domestic cannabis sector, Reuters reported. Peru legalized medicinal use in 2017 and Zimbabwe did so in 2018.
Marijuana is one of the most widely used drugs in the world, with around 147 million people – about 2% of the world’s population – using it each year, according to the World Health Organization. American adults between the ages of 19 and 30 also used marijuana at record levels last year, the National Institutes of Health reported.
But there are pockets of opposition in some parts of the world, particularly in Asia. In a 2020 referendum, New Zealand voters narrowly rejected the legalization of cannabis for non-medical use. It is available there with a prescription. Singapore — whose hard drug laws expand to cannabis – also recently reported that it not moving to allow medical marijuana in the near future.
Does Mass Pardon for Possession of Marijuana Have Global Meaning?
Maybe. US drug policy has long influenced how the world treats marijuana. Since the 1960s, the United States has championed international conventions and treaties that required participating countries to ban recreational cannabis, said Mikos, a law professor.
But now that dozens of U.S. states have legalized cannabis for recreational or medical use, several countries “have taken this as a green light to move on and start experimenting,” he said.