Cannabis in the City

Bottom-up policy reform for cannabis regulation
Tom Blickman & Katie Sandwell
Drug Policy Briefing Nr. 51
March 2019

dpb51Lately, there have been clear signs of a shift in governments’ approaches to recreational cannabis. Uruguay in 2013 and Canada in 2018 – as well as a number of US states since 2012 – have moved to control cannabis through regulated markets from seed to sale rather than prohibition. More recently, the newly elected president of Mexico and the new coalition governments of Luxembourg and Malta also announced their intentions to regulate the recreational cannabis market. This is increasingly seen as a more promising way to protect people’s health and safety, and has changed the drug policy landscape and the terms of the debate.

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The prohibitive model has failed to show any sustained impact in reducing the market, while imposing heavy burdens on criminal justice systems; producing profoundly negative social and public health impacts; and creating criminal markets supporting organised crime, violence and corruption. While in the Americas cannabis policy reform is taking off, Europe seems to be lagging behind. At the same time, however, calls for change from local authorities, which have to deal with the negative consequences of local illicit cannabis markets, are increasing.

Local authorities in several countries are seeking ways to regulate their recreational cannabis markets. However, at the EU level, discussions of cannabis policy have long been fraught with difficulty, and national governments remain reluctant to discuss the possibility of national-level regulation. Confronted with this reality, municipalities in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, notably in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland are increasingly advocating for regulation of recreational cannabis markets. Meanwhile Belgium and Spain have seen the emergence of Cannabis Social Clubs (CSCs), civil society-led attempts to develop ‘closed circuits’ supplying cannabis exclusively to adult members through collective cultivation. These developments have put pressure on authorities at every level, requiring them to take a clear stance on cannabis regulation.

To explore these developments, a recent study examined changes in cannabis policy in six countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland) where local initiatives were engaging with policy in different ways. The study involved local researchers in each country who explored its diverse initiatives and proposals, as well as the responses from policy-makers and possible directions for future development. This research was shared among the researchers, and with policy-makers and civil society, at an interactive seminar held in Brussels in November 2018, which allowed participants from all six countries to learn about initiatives and opportunities in the other countries. The study revealed that, in each country, there are local authorities eager to move forward with innovative solutions to the problems associated with unregulated illicit cannabis markets in their jurisdictions.

Key Points

  • As governments worldwide explore new cannabis policies, the discussion of recreational cannabis regulation at the national level within Europe is in a deadlock in most countries.
  • National governments in Europe are bound by international obligations – the United Nations (UN) drug-control conventions and European Union (EU) legislation – which limit their room for manoeuvre, particularly regarding the supply of (non-medicinal) cannabis.
  • A study of six European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland) revealed a great diversity of initiatives at the municipal and regional level, responding to the ‘deadlock’ in recreational cannabis regulation.
  • Cities bear substantial costs of prohibitionist drug policy, and have the capacity to act as ‘laboratories’ for innovative policies (as they did, for instance, in the development of harm- reduction policies in the 1990s), but this will require new legislation that national governments are reluctant or unable to enact.
  • Since the late 1960s, and in the face of the impossibility of eradicating cannabis use, a certain leniency towards the drug and a tendency to distinguish between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs have developed in Europe. The six countries studied have engaged in so-called ‘soft defections’ from the prohibitionist regime, but the supply of cannabis has remained strictly prohibited.
  • In practice, it is often left to local authorities to manage ‘grey zones’ resulting from soft defections and gaps in government policy.
  • Several cities and regional authorities are looking for opportunities to regulate cannabis. Sub- national authorities in northern European countries are moving towards experiments or pilot projects with regulated recreational cannabis markets, with different levels of success.
  • The point of departure for regulating the recreational cannabis markets is different in the six countries examined. The Netherlands and Spain have dispensary systems on which regulation might be built. In other countries, local authorities have to start from scratch.
  • Local customisation and Multi-Level Governance (MLG) may provide policy frameworks for national EU-level policy makers to better incorporate the demands of local authorities, and support the development of more locally adapted drug policies, while preserving the benefits of European-level cooperation on key issues.

Produced as part of a the "New Approaches in Harm Reduction Policies and Practices" project.

eu emblem nahrppThis project has been funded with support from the European Commission. The publications reflect the views only of the authors, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.