Legalising cannabis: Case studies
Explore our series of case studies: overseas examples of cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation, and how they compare to the proposed legislation here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Australia: Legalisation, decriminalisation and depenalisation
Australia’s states and territories have taken different approaches to cannabis law reform. Cannabis remains prohibited under federal law, but in January 2020 the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) became the first to legalise recreational cannabis use (but not sales). South Australia and the Northern Territory have all decriminalised cannabis for possession of small quantities.
The Netherlands: Illegal supply for ‘legal’ consumption
Purchasing cannabis from licensed ‘coffeeshops’ and possessing small amounts of cannabis is tolerated in the Netherlands due to steps taken in the 1970s. Over that time, the rates of cannabis use have been the same for people in the Netherlands compared to their European neighbours where cannabis is illegal. In contrast, arrests and convictions for possession for personal use are very low and arrests and criminal records for use or minor possession are extremely rare.
Canada: A controlled, commercial model
Canada legalised recreational use of cannabis in 2018. Because this change was so recent, the impacts of regulation on social and health outcomes are not yet clear. Many people still purchase cannabis from illegal sources due to cost and supply issues because the commercial market is in its infancy, but the number of people reporting purchase for legal sources continues to increase.
Portugal: Decriminalisation of all drugs, including cannabis
Portugal decriminalised all drug use, including cannabis, in 2001. In the time since, rates of drug use have not changed significantly but the health and social outcomes for people who use drugs have improved – mostly due to changes in injecting drug use. It is still illegal to possess, supply or sell cannabis but the penalties are smaller.
Spain: Decriminalised non-profit distribution model
Some parts of Spain have taken a liberal approach to cannabis regulation since the 1970s. Grey areas in the legislation meant that cannabis social clubs emerged in the early 2000s, producing cannabis for non-profit distribution solely to a closed group of adult members. These non-commercial organisations do not have specific formal regulation or nation-wide criteria, but certain areas have enforced regulation of some aspects of cannabis social clubs.
United States: An open, commercial approach that varies by state
Eleven states have legalised recreational cannabis use, though cannabis remains prohibited under federal law. For many states this followed establishment of a medicinal cannabis market and previous decriminalisation of cannabis use. In most states with a legal cannabis market, products can be purchased in unlimited strengths and forms from retail stores.
Uruguay: A government-controlled market
The Uruguayan government legalised recreational use of cannabis in 2013. Uruguayan citizens (not tourists) who are 18 years or older and want legal cannabis have to register for use and choose either home growing, cannabis social clubs or purchasing from an authorised pharmacy.