Rethinking Cannabis: Navigating Legal Reforms in the EU

by Gastautor

A guest post by Benjamin-Alexandre Jeanroy, CEO Augur Associates, and Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, independent researcher

In recent discussions about drug policy reform, the spotlight has increasingly focused on how European Union (EU) Member States navigate their international and EU obligations while reevaluating their stance on cannabis. This complex legal landscape offers both challenges and opportunities for reform. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know:

International and EU Legal Frameworks: A Dual Perspective

At the heart of the debate is the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Importantly to consider, the EU has not fully embraced all aspects of subsequent conventions, particularly those related to cannabis. This legal stance therefore opens a door: prohibition is not the only path forward. Both international drug control law and human rights frameworks indeed support the decriminalization of cannabis, providing a solid first-step foundation for Member States aiming to reform their policies.

Pathways to Reform: Lex Ferenda vs. Lex Lata

Member States exploring cannabis policy reform have two main routes. The first, Lex Ferenda, calls for amending existing conventions and the EU’s legal framework —something often difficult to fathom. The second, Lex Lata, involves no changes to the framework but leverages States’ unique ability to interpret treaties. This distinction underscores that EU/UN institutions, like the European Commission or the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), lack the mandate to oppose Member States’ domestic reforms based on their interpretations of treaty provisions, especially regarding lawful non-medical cannabis activities.

A Four-Step Guide to Cannabis Policy Reform

A recent policy brief commissioned by the 2022 Czechia EU Presidency outlines 11 existing feasible policy options for EU Member States to regulate non-medical cannabis within UN and EU legal frameworks. Among these, one is recommended: a four-step pathway that offers a politically savvy and compliance-focused strategy:

  1. Immediate Action: Decriminalize personal cultivation, possession, and use. This step aligns with common practices across the EU, promising budget savings, and immediate social and public health benefits.
  2. Short-Term Strategy: Regulate non-medical cannabis industries, under Article 2(9) of the Single Convention, by incorporating specific language from the Single Convention in legalization bills (such as Malta and Switzerland did). This includes commitments to harm reduction and data reporting to the INCB. Clear strategies for addressing EU cross-border issues are also welcome at this stage.
  3. Engage in Dialogue: Open communication channels with key international and EU bodies, including the INCB and the World Health Organization (WHO), to align on data collection and harm reduction efforts, and to smooth over potential conflicts within the EU legal framework.
  4. Long-Term Strategy: Explore like-minded initiatives for possible future international regulatory adjustments, including non-disruptive and well-ascertained long-run approaches such as a regular amendment procedure under Article 47 of the Single Convention.

The Joint Statement: A Foundation for Reform?

In July 2022, Germany, Luxembourg, and Malta released a joint statement, hinting at a collective approach to cannabis regulation for non-medical and non-scientific uses, which was in line with Article 2(9) of the Single Convention. This move underscored the beginning of a shared vision for cannabis reform, based on public health objectives and compliance mechanisms, setting a precedent for future collaboration.

Unfortunately, since then, these States have embraced different pathways and failed to continue collaborating on a joint strategy, however beneficial to both these countries and the broader EU.

Navigating Trade and Tourism in a Legal Cannabis Market

The legalization of cannabis introduces it as a consumable good within the EU’s trade framework, necessitating nuanced control of cross-border trade. Furthermore, as jurisdictions worldwide reconsider cannabis access, addressing cannabis tourism becomes crucial to prevent illicit markets and integrate legal cannabis within sustainable tourism practices.

Looking Ahead: Compliance and Coherence

The journey towards cannabis law reform raises intricate compliance questions with both international law and the European acquis. It’s essential for each EU State to carefully justify its trade restrictions to ensure they are not incoherent, disproportional, or discriminatory, which EU law forbids.

In Conclusion

As we navigate the complexities of cannabis policy reform, it’s clear that thoughtful legal interpretation, international dialogue, and cooperative action are key to paving the way for sustainable, sensible, and health-focused compliant regulations within the EU and beyond.

As States’ joint action has been esquissed but failed to endure, civil society groups, researchers, and organisations that have been involved in these topics for some years are starting to do what States failed to achieve: adopting a common political strategy while remaining independent in their actions. 

The 2019-2029 Declaration’s Mid-Term Review (a key UN drug policy guiding document at the time pushed by the Trump administration) will be held on 14 – 15 March 2024. Following it, the 67th UN CND session will be held from 18 – 22 March. 

A “Cannabis Embassy” will be officially created during the CND session in Vienna, March 13 – 22, an endeavour of worldwide NGOs and experts, that will hopefully streamline this much-needed strategic union and inspire our governments.

This crucial engagement requires travel, accommodation, incidental expenses and the organisation of the event costs, including material and guest travel. Contributions will directly enable a group of advocates to continue impacting global cannabis & hemp policies sustainably. Engaging with international policymakers, sharing experiences, and advocating for progressive and just drug policies that respect people and their cultures by prioritising public health, social justice, human rights, and environmental and cultural conservation.

Disclaimer: Benjamin-Alexandre Jeanroy and Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli are currently looking for support. Click here to access information on how to support

Guest posts don’t need to represent the opinion of the editorial team.

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