Luxembourg, cannabis and the EU
Twenty years ago, in 2001, Luxembourg decriminalised the possession of cannabis. Luxembourg’s current government coalition signed a proposition in 2018 to explore the legalisation of recreational cannabis (Arellano 2021). Then, in the summer of 2019, the government made a surprise announcement that they intended to legalise recreational cannabis use.
Luxembourg’s Health Minister, Etienne Schneider, argued that people buy weed of unknown quality and potency on the black market anyway and also risk being exposed to other drugs through dealers. Schneider pointed out that the drug policy adhered to by the government for the last fifty years had clearly failed; he has urged the other EU states to follow Luxembourg’s example and regulate a market that will not just disappear (Bercea 2020).
In February 2020, details of the plans of the government of Luxembourg to legalise the recreational use of cannabis emerged (Deutsch 2021). Although Luxembourg has a small population, of only 626,000 people, the change in the law is likely to affect the considerations of Luxembourg’s larger, neighbouring EU countries: France, Germany and Belgium. It is expected that Luxembourg’s new policies and laws will be fully enacted by 2023.
Proposed cannabis policy in Luxembourg
In Luxembourg’s plans, drawn up by Schneider and Justice Minister Félix Braz, only adults over eighteen years old and registered as resident in the country would be able to buy cannabis from approved shops. Resident consumers would be entered into a government database so that they cannot buy more than permitted, the recommended limit on purchases being 30 gms a month per resident. Consumers would still not be allowed to grow their own weed. These conditions are intended to prevent cannabis tourism from other countries.
However, as around 200,000 people commute daily from outside the country to work in Luxembourg, it has been recognized that limiting cannabis consumption exclusively to Luxembourg’s residents might be difficult to enforce, as there are usually no border controls between member EU states; and Luxembourg’s residents who have permits would theoretically be able to supply visitors.
No cannabis smoking would be permitted in public or in cannabis shops. Advertising, internet sales and delivery would be prohibited. Shops would be open from noon until 8.00 pm and not near any school; they would not be allowed to sell alcohol or tobacco. The plan is to license fourteen retail outlets and also a single production site for two domestic producers. Retailers would have to pay for a licence. There would be higher taxes on high-THC weed but the aim is to make government cannabis “not too expensive and not cheap”. Taxes would go towards prevention campaigns.
Similarly to current concerns in the USA and in Uruguay, an awkward, legal issue is the financing of private shops and farms, as banks are reluctant to finance any business that is technically still illegal under international conventions (Pascal 2020).
In Switzerland, cultivation, sale and use of cannabis is currently illegal. Someone caught in possession of up to 10 gms of cannabis can be fined 100 Swiss Francs (around $100), but will not be criminally prosecuted. However, in practice, cannabis is openly smoked in various locations in Swiss urban environments, such as parks. Although almost 40% of adults claim to have used cannabis at least once in their life, only around 3% (around 200,000 people) of Swiss adults regularly use it. However, around 27% of Swiss teenagers reported using it in the previous year, the highest percentage in Europe (The Local.ch 2020).
In a referendum in 2008, Swiss voters rejected by 63% a proposal to legalise cannabis. However, recent legal changes to cannabis laws in other places, such as Colorado and Canada, have not led to any negative effects, such as increased road accidents or health issues. In Colorado, of $150 million collected in taxes on cannabis in 2016, $50 million was allocated to projects in schools. These and other recent developments reignited discussion in Switzerland about cannabis legalisation (Tharoor 2021).
In 2016, the sale of a strain of cannabis (‘Fedora’) that is very high in CBD (7.2%) and low on THC (0.04%) was authorized and marketed in Switzerland as a tobacco substitute (Knodt).
Following that development, in a trial that will begin on 15th May 2021 and run for five years, 5,000 adults per participating municipality—initially Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich—will be able to buy organic cannabis grown in Switzerland (with up to 20% THC) in a pharmacy, without a prescription. Purchasers must have used cannabis previously—though it has been pointed out that this will be almost impossible to prove—and will be issued with a user’s certificate. The Swiss government will closely monitor the results of the trial (The Local.ch 2020;Arnold 2021; O’Brien 2021). The new laws were published by the Swiss government in a policy document on 31st March 2021 (Schweizeriche Eigenossenschaft 2021), coincidentally on the same day that new cannabis laws were enacted in New York.
The government of Ireland announced on 2nd August 2019 that simple possession of drugs would henceforth be treated as a health and not as criminal issue. There will be a ‘three strike’ system, whereby someone caught once and then twice with a small amount of a prohibited drug will be referred to the Health Service Executive for screening and a brief intervention. The third offence will, however, be referred to the courts. Critics of the new policy have highlighted the remaining uncertainty over whether or not fines for the first two cannabis offences will still be applicable, and pointed out that counselling for cannabis would be unproductive and a waste of resources that could be spent on more serious cases of drug abuse (Devine 2019).
In a similar move, in February 2021 the Norwegian government decided to decriminalise possession of small amounts of all prohibited drugs, including cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Prohibited drugs will remain illegal but penalties for possession of small amounts will be abolished; instead, anyone caught with a small quantity will need to attend counselling sessions. The limits for possession will be relatively low: 10 gms for cannabis; 2 gms for cocaine, amphetamines and heroin; and 500 gms for khat (McKay 2021).
Current cannabis policies in other EU countries
Concerning drug taking in general, following the examples of other countries, several EU governments are now focussing on health solutions rather than punitive measures, and are keen to remove the connection between criminal gangs and ordinary drug consumers. Policy decisions in several countries are being moved from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Health.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, including cannabis. The results have been positive in several aspects, including crime and drug-related deaths. Levels of drug use in Portugal are now below the European average. Portugal’s focus on health and social policy issues, rather than punitive measures, appear to have been largely responsible for the positive developments (Murkin 2014).
In the Czech Republic, possession of small amounts of cannabis (5 gms of hashish; 15 gms of weed) were decriminalised in 2013; similar policies have been enacted in Latvia, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain (Conbiz 2021).
In the last few years, the use of medicinal cannabis has been authorised in many European countries. Germany legalised medicinal cannabis in 2017 (Grotenhermen 2020). France has the highest number of cannabis users (over 11%) per capita in Europe, and in 2018 penalties for recreational use were reduced. The sale of CBD (and low THC) cannabis has been legalised, and in October 2020 the government authorised trials of medical cannabis, becoming the twenty-third European country to do so. Discussions are currently underway concerning decriminalisation and legalisation (Ledsom 2021).
It is well known that since the 1970s cannabis has been available in coffee shops in the Netherlands. However, the supply of cannabis to the shops has up to now been in the hands of unregulated and untaxed suppliers, a legal grey area filled by the black market. In 2021 the Dutch government will begin a trial involving seventy-nine Dutch coffee shops, implementing a new policy to have coffee shops supplied by regulated growers and dealers. It is hoped that by 2025 the cannabis sold in all coffee shops in the Netherlands will be from registered suppliers (Taylor 2021).
Following Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the current trend in many European countries seems to be towards the full legalisation of recreational cannabis.
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