Marijuana Reform in the European Union

Marijuana Reform in the European Union

The momentum of marijuana reform in the US continues to grow, with efforts for medical marijuana, decriminalization, and even legalization accelerating in states around the country. On the opposite side of the Atlantic, the movement also seems to be gaining steam.

As Reason reported on Monday, supporters have just last week begun gathering signatures to propose a citizen’s initiative to the European Union. The measure, called the “Weed Like to Talk Initiative,” would encourage the EU to adopt “a common policy on the control and regulation of cannabis production, use and sale.” Although currently far from the threshold level of signatures necessary to force action by the EU, the progress of the collection effort can be followed here.

While member states’ policies still vary significantly, there is already momentum in the direction of sensible reforms. The Netherlands and Portugal are probably the most widely known examples of more sensible drug policies, but other nations such as Spain also have no criminal penalties for personal marijuana possession.1 Infographics from Wikipedia and the Huffington Post give a general idea of the current state of the laws on the continent, and there have been some major reforms recently in the region.

Italy’s Constitutional Court earlier this month struck down a 2006 law imposing criminal penalties for relatively small quantities of marijuana possession. The law approximately tripled the penalties for marijuana cultivation and distribution. Previous laws had drawn a distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs, and provided administrative rather than criminal penalties for small-scale possession of soft drugs, i.e. cannabis and cannabis products.

Partly due to drug offenders, Italy is now home to notoriously overcrowded prisons, and is under court order from the European Court of Human Rights to solve the issue of overcrowding. Without the controversial law, it is estimated that about 10,000 inmates could be released.

Legality of cannabis in Europe /

Legality of cannabis in Europe /


The Czech Republic2 was the most recent European Union member state to join Spain and Portugal in decriminalizing a wider range of illicit drugs. In 2010, a law was passed enacting legal limits for possession of various substances, below which violators will only be subject to administrative rather than criminal charges.

Medical marijuana is making progress in the EU as well. Although such laws are not as far-reaching as the legalization seen in Colorado or Washington state, they do address serious medical issues and serve to remove some of the funding from the black market.

Although the laws of Scandinavian countries generally express a harsher anti-drug attitude,3 Finland has allowed the prescription of medical marijuana since 2007. Frank Jensen, the mayor of the Danish capitol city of Copenhagen, recently agreed with Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson that marijuana should be legalized more broadly.4

Medical marijuana is already widely legalized in EU member states, including most recently in the Czech Republic, France and Romania. In the Netherlands, a government agency responsible for medicinal cannabis has been operating since 2001.

A cannabis-derived medicinal spray called Sativex was first approved in the UK in 2010 and has been available in Spain since 2011. The medication, containing two active ingredients of herbal cannabis, was initially approved for spasticity in multiple sclerosis patients.

In Italy, the same medication was launched in the summer of 2013. The country’s Federal Ministry of Health had indicated approval of medical marijuana itself in January of 2013, following similar moves by four Italian regional governments. The spray has now been approved by 23 countries, including 17 in Europe, 9 of which already have it available on the market.

In Germany, both imported medical marijuana and Sativex are officially legal, but can be difficult to acquire. A 2012 court ruling citing these difficulties allowed medical users the opportunity to grow their own, as long as they obtain a license and have a doctor’s supervision. In neighboring Austria, medical marijuana was legalized in 2008, and a law going into effect that year required prosecutors to drop prosecution of many cases of possession for personal use.


1. Spain also allows limited private cultivation of marijuana.

2. See page 21.

3. See the laws of Sweden.

4. Iceland is not a member nation of the European Union, but Denmark is.