420 is now less of a celebration in Europe than it is in the United States

For years, progress on the question of legal medicinal and recreational marijuana has sparked debate in the United States. For a long time, American legalization activists used positive cases, such as the one of the Netherlands, to argue for leniency on drug-related crimes. Today, the situation seems to be reversed.

Europe’s Role Models on Drug Policy

A set of European countries have been held up as role models on the issue of marijuana. However, the specifics of each of these states need to be relativized. Take for instance the Netherlands: this country, known to a large extent for its tolerant view on weed, suffers from the misperception that weed is legal. In fact, the possession of marijuana is decriminalized up to 5 grams, yet police controls still happen, resulting in the confiscation of the said amount. The coffee shops you’ll see on your visit to Amsterdam technically do not operate legally but are tolerated by authorities. In practice, this means that since marijuana is still on the books as one of the many illegal substances, law enforcement can shut coffee shops down any time they like. This makes the framework around weed very arbitrary.

A select number of countries, among which are Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, and the island of Malta, take a more kumbaya approach to either possession of small amounts of weed or to the enforcement of the existing illegality of the substance.

A number of things can be said about specific exceptions, such as the rule in Italy that allows for marijuana use for religious practices, the fact that Albania is also known as “Europe’s Columbia” due to its inability to enforce any type of restrictions on marijuana, or the hippie district of Freetown in Copenhagen that claims independent jurisdiction from Denmark yet only gets lenient treatment on things such as weed. In general, though, only two countries have adopted large “hands-off” policy on the issue: the CzechRepublic and Portugal. Both of these countries actually decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all types of drugs more than a decade ago.

Where the United States Outperforms Europe

Now that you’ve figured out the travel route for your next Europe trip, you’ll notice that all of the European states have something in common: none of them have legalized marijuana. Only the Netherlands tolerate the existence of coffee shops, which makes them operate in an odd vacuum of legal uncertainty. In the U.S., on the other hand, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington allow medical and recreational sales. This is paired with a large-scale public debate on the benefits of marijuana and a contextualization of the risks it actually entails as well as a debate on the politics that led to the beginning of the War on Drugs under President Nixon.

Compare this to Europe: the European Union is noticeably quiet on the issue, not only because this issue remains at the level of the member states, but also because it would be hard to find more repressive measures than what some states implement right now.

Incarceration for possession of minor quantities remains possible in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavian nations, and virtually all of Central and Eastern Europe. The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has a maximum penalty of eight years for mere possession. In France, where President Macron has promised to change the rules so that fewer people end up in prison for possession, the government is now set to make it into a misdemeanor, with a fine of €300 ($370). As Macron made many of his political choices according to opinion polls, the fact that only a minority of French people support any type of decriminalization explains that decision.

In fact, public support for any move towards more decriminalization or legalization is not at hand. In a 2014 survey requested by the European Union Commission, even 53 percent of 15-24 year-olds stated that they think that marijuana should be banned and not made available, even with regulation. 57 percent said that “tough measures against drug dealers and traffickers” are the appropriate way of dealing with societal drug problems.

This is particularly disconcerting, given that the reasons that have led many Americans to reconsider their stance on marijuana (notably law enforcement’s targeting of minorities, false assumptions about the effect on health, and the mere cost of police operations) seem to fall on deaf ears in the old continent. In fact, the only compelling reason that the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) gives for the cutback of enforcement is that “the 2008 economic recession forced cuts to law enforcement budgets.”

Europe is only less harsh on drugs than it was 20 years ago because it lacks the money to enforce the laws on the books. With many European nations seeing a third of its prison population incarcerated for drug-related crimes, shortage of funding seems to be the reason for temporary reform. This is certainly not a good way of making reasonable drug policy reforms in the long term.

While there might someday come an awakening on the issue of marijuana, it seems that even given the many good reasons for legalization coming out of the United States, Europe will be lagging behind the U.S. on this issue for a lot longer than believers in individual freedom would like.


This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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