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A Journal of Cannabis and Culture

Weed Worldwide

Weed Worldwide

TEXT BY: Kevin EG Perry

Back in 1975, in a recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica, the reggae icon Peter Tosh was preparing to record his first album after leaving The Wailers, the hugely influential group he had formed with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer. Having been targeted and victimized by the Jamaican police, Tosh knew exactly what this new album would be called: Legalize It.

Tosh didn’t have to explain what “it” referred to. Cannabis use was already widespread, not just in his own community but around the world, but he knew the road to legalization would be an arduous one. Still, Tosh foresaw a bright future. “Herb will become like cigarettes,” he told an interviewer from the British music magazine NMElater that same year.

Four decades later, buying cannabis legally is still not quite as easy as buying cigarettes—but it’s getting there. The legalization movement around the world has moved forward in leaps and bounds, but progress has looked different in each liberalizing country. Here, we take a deep dive into three countries that have helped pave the way toward legalization.

Countries Where Cannabis Is Legal

Israel has played a major role in the history of cannabis and our understanding of it. It was in a laboratory in Jerusalem in 1964, while experimenting with bags of hashish that had been seized by local police, that Professor Raphael Mechoulam became the first person ever to isolate cannabis’s primary psychoactive compound: THC.

Mechoulam’s trailblazing work at the Center for Research on Pain at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem also led to the discovery of anandamides, the THC-like neurotransmitters that occur naturally in the brain. He named them after the Sanskrit word ānanda, which can be translated as joy, bliss, or delight.

As a result of his findings, Mechoulam advocated for cannabinoids to be legalized for medicinal purposes in Israel, helping the country become a leader in the medical marijuana movement. The Israeli Ministry of Health started issuing licenses for medical marijuana use in 1999, and since then, cannabis has been prescribed to a wide variety of patients in Israel, including people with final-stage tumors or those being treated with chemotherapy, as well as those living with conditions including Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Israeli patients can consume cannabis by smoking it, ingesting it in liquid or caplet form, or applying it to the skin as a balm.

These days, thousands of Israelis are enrolled in a regulated medical marijuana program. For those without a doctor’s prescription, getting hold of cannabis can be a little trickier, but things are improving. Last year, Israel’s government passed new reforms that came into effect on April 1 this year. Among the changes is the temporary overturning of an old law that mandated up to three years in prison for cannabis use. The government has said it will spend the next three years examining the results of relaxing the law. In the interim, anyone caught with up to 15 grams of cannabis will be given a flat fine of 1,000 shekels (around $277) for a first offense and 2,000 shekels (around $554) for a second offense committed within five years of the first. Neither will result in a criminal record—good news in a country that has one of the highest (pun intended) percentages of cannabis users in the world. A 2017 poll showed that 27 percent of Israelis aged 18 to 65 use cannabis, with that number rising to 41 percent among 18 to 25-year-olds. As that generation grows up and takes power, expect Israel’s cannabis laws to become even more welcoming.

It’s hard to think of another country whose popular culture is as intertwined with cannabis as Jamaica’s. This is in large part due to Rastafarianism, a religious movement that began on the island and regards Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as the Messiah. Within the Rastafarian faith, cannabis which is sometimes referred to as the “wisdom weed”—is considered a sacrament. Smoking it is a religious rite that can be traced back to the Rastafarian belief that cannabis grew on the grave of King Solomon (a direct ancestor of Haile Selassie, according to the faith’s teachings). For Rastafarians, smoking ganja to feed your soul is as natural as eating when you’re hungry or drinking when you’re thirsty.

The significance of cannabis within Rastafarianism went on to influence reggae culture, and, in turn, the image of Bob Marley blazing a joint became emblematic of Jamaica as a whole, in much of the world’s imagination. Yet in truth, this image can be misleading. Cannabis was banned in Jamaica under the 1913 Ganja Law, and as recently as a decade ago it was still possible to face life in prison for simply possessing a single spliff. As often happens, young men growing up in poorer areas were disproportionately affected by these draconian laws. Things began to change in 2015 when an amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act decriminalized possession of up to two ounces of cannabis.

The same amendment legalized cannabis for medical, scientific, and therapeutic uses, as long as it’s sold by a licensed business or prescribed by a doctor. Visitors who use medical marijuana can get a prescription from a local physician, or even use a medical marijuana card from the United States. Rastafarians may grow cannabis and use it themselves, as long as they don’t attempt to sell it without a license.

Nascent cannabis industry is now emerging in the country, and Bob Marley’s estate could be among those to capitalize. Cannabis-infused drinks bearing the reggae legend’s likeness are on the way, while his son Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley has become a leading cannabis legalization campaigner. After many years of activism, Jamaica’s cannabis laws are finally catching up to the country’s laid-back image.

In 2013, Uruguay made cannabis history when it became the first sovereign state anywhere in the world to fully legalize the sale and consumption of cannabis for recreational use. That law finally came into effect in July 2017, when the country’s Ministry of Public Health started to sell bags of cannabis for around 80 pesos ($2.45) per gram. To date, Canada is the only other country that’s joined Uruguay in full, nationwide legalization.

Legalization looks very different in Uruguay than in other emerging legal markets. For a start, it’s essentially a state monopoly. The government has authorized the sale of just a few varieties of unbranded cannabis, meaning there’s a lot less choice for consumers than in the American states that have embraced legalization. And to access those few options, you have to register yourself on a database and visit a state-authorized pharmacy.

Uruguayans who would rather grow their own weed can instead join registered cannabis clubs, although this practice to is heavily regulated. And visitors to Uruguay can’t take advantage of legalization: to buy cannabis, you must be an Uruguayan citizen over the age of 18.

Like anyone who’s ever taken a brave step into the unknown, Uruguay has encountered a handful of unforeseen problems. In particular, many international banks have refused to handle money generated by cannabis sales for fear of international sanctions under UN regulations or the US Terrorist Act, according to the former president of Uruguay’s Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis. As a result, only 17 of the 1,000 pharmacies in Uruguay actually sell cannabis. Activists in the South American country hope that Canada’s decision to join them in legalizing will help the situation, by normalizing legal cannabis and increasing the likelihood that international banks will handle the income generated by its sale.

In another holdup for Uruguayans, all of the country’s legal cannabis is currently grown by two licensed producers. Recognizing that this was creating a bottleneck, the government announced late last year that it would seek to grant five additional growing licenses. The country’s 32,000 registered cannabis users will be hoping those are granted soon.

This story and many more are available in the newest issue of EMBER magazine—made with our partners, PAPER magazine. You can grab a copy at your localMedMencannabis dispensary or at Barnes and Noble.

A Journal of Cannabis and Culture
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