California sees the potential of liberalising drug legislation

The liberalisation of cannabis consumption for medical purposes in California is an interesting case. California pioneered bans on smoking tobacco and now has some of the most liberal marijuana laws in the world.

There is a network of doctors prescribing marijuana for medical purposes, which shows the attempts to liberalise drug policy. Although in the international conventions, many countries state to ban the sale and possession of drugs, the law is increasingly ignored. In the United States, the Obama administration has announced that registered cannabis dispensaries will no longer be raided by federal authorities.

In the United States, there are 13 states that let people use marijuana for medical reasons, although many of them require more stringent conditions than in California, where insomnia, migraine, or post traumatic stress are valid reasons. In the majority of states that have decriminalised the personal possession of marijuana, either for medical purpose or other kind, retain the option of a US$100 civil penalty. New Mexico, Rhode Island and Massachusetts licence non-profit organisations to grow medical marijuana and other states are considering the total legalisation such as California, Massachussets and Oregon.

One reason for the sudden popularity of the drug is financial. In California it is estimated that if marijuana were legal, i.e. taxable, the state could raise US$1.3 billion per year. Not counting the time that police could use for other purposes and the space that would be released in California prisons.

In Europe, even though drug users can go to prison only a small part of them end up arrested. In Denmark, the toughest penalty for a drug offence was recently increased from six to ten years, but on average a drug offender does not spend more than 20 months in prison. In the UK, where possession of marijuana can be punished with five years in prison, only 0.2% goes to jail. In other European countries the law is even more permissive. Personal possession of any drug is not a crime in Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Czech Republic or the Baltic states.

Cannabis continues to be the illicit drug most often mentioned in reported drug law offences in Europe. In the majority of European countries, offences involving cannabis accounted for between 55 % and 85 % of reported drug law offences in 2007. The trend in cannabis use in the United Kingdom is particularly interesting. In the early and mid-1990s, the country stood out in the European picture as the one reporting the highest prevalence. This picture has progressively changed, as levels of use rose in other countries. Moreover, cannabis use in the United Kingdom has been steadily declining since around 2003, particularly among the 16–24 age group, suggesting a generational shift. A downward or stabilising trend can now be seen elsewhere, in both school and some general population survey data.

Under the Bush administration, all cannabis dispensaries were closed, regardless of state laws in which they operated. Nevertheless, the new American administration has made it easier for Canada to take a more liberal position regarding drugs. In the state of British Columbia, for example, heroin addicts can get their doses under controlled conditions.

In Latin America the road is similar. In Mexico the possession of small amount of any drug was decriminalised, whereas in Argentina and Colombia the respective supreme courts stated that prosecuting people for possession of drugs was unconstitutional. In Brazil and Ecuador the debate is starting on the same topic.

The decriminalisation of drug possession is not the solution to curb organised crime. But the United States attempts to stop persecuting consumers can be a starting point.