Beyond major marijuana developments in the U.S. at the federal and state levels this year, momentum for drug policy reform continued to build across many parts of the globe in 2023. From the issuance of the first licenses in the European Union for nonprofit cannabis associations to the EU’s largest economy taking steps toward legalizing marijuana for adults, a number of countries, especially in Europe and South America, marked drug reform milestones in the past year.
Yet 2023 also saw a rash of setbacks. Delays to cannabis legalization efforts in countries like Colombia and Germany, to name a few, have frustrated advocates and pushed key votes into the year ahead. Meanwhile, amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, tragedy has fueled a push to legalize medical marijuana, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said could heal the “stress and trauma of war.”
Even some countries already associated with progressive drug policies made noteworthy history in 2023. Consumers in the Netherlands, for example, bought and smoked the first legally grown marijuana as part of an experiment to regulate the nation’s long-tolerated cannabis trade.
Here are some of the biggest international marijuana and drug policy stories of 2023:
Germany this year made strides toward becoming the EU’s largest economy to legalize marijuana for adults after Health Minister Karl Lauterbach first shared details of an updated legalization plan in April. He distributed the legislative text to cabinet officials the following month.
In its current form, the plan would stagger implementation of the policy changes, making possession and home cultivation of cannabis legal for adults beginning in April. Social clubs that could distribute marijuana to members would open in July.
Though a final vote on the proposal has been delayed until early next year, supporters remain optimistic. Kirsten Kappert-Gonther, a Green Party member of the Bundestag, the country’s parliament, has said the planned April start date for certain elements of legalization could still “be achieved if it is set up at the beginning of the year!”
Following the bill’s final reading in the Bundestag, it will go to the Bundesrat, a separate legislative body that represents German states. Members of the Bundesrat tried to block the reform in September but ultimately failed.
While the legislation represents a scaling-back of plans announced last year to legalize a nationwide commercial cannabis market, officials are eventually planning to introduce a complementary second measure that would establish pilot programs for commercial sales in certain cities. That proposal is expected to be unveiled after its submitted to the European Commission for review.
Two years ago, at the end of 2021, Malta, the smallest European Union country, became the first on the contient to legalize marijuana. This year, the nation continued implementing the reform by becoming the first to issue licenses for nonprofit “cannabis associations” to begin cultivating the plant.
In October, ARUC Executive Chair Leonid McKay announced that the agency granted operational licenses to two associations, KDD Society and Ta’ Zelli, allowing them to begin cultivation. Another four associations were awarded in-principle licenses. After lab testing, the associations are aiming to begin legal distribution to members in February 2024.
While similar entities have existed informally in other parts of Europe for decades, Malta’s newly issued licenses are the first of their kind ever issued in the EU.
Cannabis associations can have as many as 500 members and are limited to distributing 7 grams per day to each member, with a maximum of 50 grams per month. They can also distribute up to 20 cannabis seeds per member each month. The legislation says its purpose is “allowing for a balance between individual freedom in the limited and responsible personal use of cannabis and other social requirements.”
Colombian lawmakers made major progress toward legalizing marijuana in 2023, advancing legislation through the country’s Chamber of Representatives and a Senate committee. But in December, after supporters pushed for urgent Senate consideration of the bill, the full chamber voted to shelve the proposal during its fourth of eight required debates to adopt the constitutional amendment.
The setback means that advocates will have to restart the two-year process in 2024.
Rep. Juan Carlos Losada, who championed legalization in the Chamber of Representatives, blamed the defeat on “misinformation” from opponents, including members of his own party, that concerned a separate administrative decree to fully legalize simple drug possession.
“We will continue fighting for a change in drug policy, convinced that it is the only way to end the war and to truly prevent problematic consumption and the impact on the most vulnerable populations,” Losada said after the vote. “We will insist until misinformation and maneuvers are no longer the protagonists of this debate.”
President Gustavo Petro, who in October criticized the “enormous hypocrisy” of the U.S.-led global drug war after smelling marijuana on a visit to New York, has said the recent setback will only perpetuate illegal drug trafficking and the violence associated with the unregulated trade.
Lawmakers nearly enacted an earlier version of the legalization measure earlier this year, but it stalled in the final stage in the Senate last session—making it so supporters had to restart the lengthy legislative process.
As the year came to a close, lawmakers in Ukraine signed off on a bill to legalize medical marijuana nationally, sending it to be signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who supports the reform.
The measure would legalize medical cannabis for patients with severe illnesses and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from the nation’s ongoing conflict with Russia, which launched an invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago.
The country’s unicameral legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, passed the legislation on December 21 with 248 votes, overcoming opponents who attempted to block the proposal with a deluge of hundreds of what critics called “spam” amendments in November.
“The draft law on medical cannabis is aimed exclusively at treating Ukrainians who really need it,” MP Maria Mezentseva said, according to a translation. “Medicines only by prescription, only medicinal products and modern production in Ukraine to avoid all possible corruption risks.”
The law will become effective six months after Zelensky signs the legislation.
During his presidential campaign, Zelensky also voiced support for medical cannabis legalization, saying in 2019 that he feels it would be “normal” to allow people to access cannabis “droplets,” thought to be a reference to marijuana tinctures.
The policy change would put Ukraine in stark contrast to its long-time aggressor Russia, which has taken a particularly strong stance against reforming cannabis policy at the international level through the United Nations. The country has condemned Canada, for example, for legalizing marijuana nationwide.
Luxembourg this past summer became the second European Union country, after Malta, to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation. Lawmakers passed a legalization law in June that took effect the following month.
The change, first proposed by the ministers of justice and homeland security in 2021, allows adults to possess up to three grams of cannabis and grow up to four plants in a secure location within their private residence. Marijuana seeds are no longer prohibited and can be purchased from shops or online.
“By choosing to regulate the cultivation of cannabis at home, the Government intends to regulate its consumption and to reduce related risks and harm,” said the country’s Ministry of Health. “The decision is part of a proactive and constructive public health approach stemming from a political will to establish a balance between prevention, risk reduction and combating criminality.”
Nearly two years after a top Italian court blocked a referendum on marijuana legalization and psychedelics reform from going before voters, activists in the country are promoting a more limited version of the proposal. In December, organizers began circulating a petition for a cannabis-only measure that would allow the home cultivation of four plants, the eventual creation of social clubs and the elimination of penalties for consumers, much like in Malta and the German proposal.
Only a week into the six-month signature-gathering campaign, supporters announced that they’re well ahead of pace to collect 50,000 voters signatures to force lawmakers to consider the measure, having collected nearly half the required number. Nearly 10,000 came in within the first 24 hours alone.
“The enthusiastic response underscores the issue’s importance,” Antonella Soldo, coordinator of the Associazione Meglio Legale (Better Legal Association), one of the petition’s lead advocacy groups, told Marijuana Moment. “We are confident that the merits of our initiative, grounded in scientific evidence and inspired by successful models in other European countries like Germany, will resonate with the public.”
Switzerland dipped a toe into cannabis legalization this year, launching a regulated sales pilot program open to a limited number of participants in a handful of locations. In Zurich, for example, the program was open to a test group of 2,100 residents, who were permitted to buy marijuana from pharmacies and social clubs. Participants then answer questions about how they consumed the products and their health effects, part of a study with the University of Zurich.
The so-called “Grashaus Project” study will also be undertaken in Basel-Landschaft, open to nearly 4,000 participants.
Further studies with university sponsors were planned in Bern, Lausanne, Geneva, Biel, Thun, Olten and Winterthur.
The Swiss government has reportedly said the pilot program is intended to offer insights into users’ consumption patterns, physical and mental health and performance and productivity, as well as youth and public safety protections, among other aspects of a regulated market.
In mid-December, two Dutch cities—Breta and Tilburg—began selling the nation’s first legally cultivated cannabis. Despite the famously tolerant approach to marijuana sales through coffeeshops in the Netherlands, growing the plant has remained illegal and subject to enforcement.
After a six-month trial period in the two cities, the program could eventually expand to 11 municipalities across the country.
Bart Vollenberg, who grows marijuana for the experiment, said it helps improve quality control as well as safety for consumers.
“The most significant advantage is that it is not criminal activity, and it becomes transparent,” he told the Associated Press. “You can test the weed in the laboratory. With all the knowledge and skills of Dutch horticulture, we can start improving the quality of the weed now. No longer need to make all kinds of twists and turns in illegality.”
“We are finally taking a small place on the international stage back again,” added Derrick Bergman, chairman of the Union for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibition. (Full Story)