Canada, you may have the same Queen, but watch out! The United Kingdom is the latest major industrialized country to legalize medical cannabis. The decision was made by the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who said, “Recent cases involving sick children made it clear to me that our position on cannabis-related medicinal products was not satisfactory.” As a result, while we do not have details yet, medical cannabis will become available to children and adults with a prescription.

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Javid did add, however, that this was “in no way a first step to the legalization of cannabis for recreational use.” This follows a widely watched story involving a 12-year old boy with a rare form of epilepsy who had received a special emergency license to be treated with medical marijuana in Northern Ireland. With over 65 million people, the UK represents a big increase in those patients now able to access medical cannabis worldwide.

Over 30 countries have legalized medical cannabis at this point, including a number in Europe. Very few nations, however, permit the full adult use of cannabis. For now you can include Canada (starting in October), Uruguay, and Colombia (limited) and that’s about it. Some have quirky rules, like Jamaica, which allows adult use for religious reasons (most do not realize it is still a crime in Jamaica to otherwise grow or sell cannabis for recreational use). And be forewarned, cannatourists, Uruguay does not permit foreigners to buy or use pot.

Many countries also have decriminalized cannabis, including Argentina, parts of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, and that’s just A-C! Many do not know that the Netherlands actually retains criminality (though it’s “tolerated”) for recreational use despite Amsterdam being somewhat of a mecca for users. Decriminalization is important to advocates for social justice who believe that minorities have been disproportionately targeted for drug arrests.

Even Russia has decriminalized possession of up to six grams. Of course, restrictive regimes like China still do not permit any growth or sale, and this is also true of Vietnam (although Wikipedia says it is “unenforced”). However, China permits certain provinces to grow industrial hemp, and many believe China is in fact the world’s largest producer of hemp products. They started allowing such agricultural-industrial practices during the Vietnam War in order to produce more breathable uniforms for their soldiers in the baking heat.

A bill recently introduced in South Korea, already a major hemp producer, would legalize medical cannabis. Meanwhile, there are contradictory reports about North Korea, some saying cannabis grows widely in the country and its growth and use is permitted or at least tolerated, and others saying it is treated harshly like other more dangerous drugs.

Turning to other parts of Asia, Thailand, famous among stoners (and soldiers during the Vietnam War) for its product, actually has not legalized even medical cannabis. There is recent talk that medical pot might get serious consideration. For now it is only said that that cannabis crimes are “poorly enforced” in that country.

In Japan, thousands still are arrested annually for cannabis-related crimes. It is not expected that their zero-tolerance policy will change anytime soon, even amid reports of rising popularity in the recreational use of cannabis there.

Moving to the so-called Oceania region, Australia’s leaders still believe cannabis is a gateway drug and are blocking legislative attempts at legalizing adult use. The land Down Under did legalize medical cannabis in 2016, but reports suggest that actually obtaining the medicine is rather difficult. New Zealand appears to be moving soon towards a new law to permit medical cannabis, and it seems likely there will be a referendum on adult use in 2019 or 2020.

What about our southern neighbor? Mexico legalized medical cannabis in 2015. Several bills to permit adult use have been put forth with little success and most believe it is not likely to happen soon. Legislators talk passionately about needing to end the violence related to the criminalization of cannabis in that country. The U.S. is in a somewhat awkward position, asking Mexico to have zero-tolerance of illegal drugs while cannabis becomes legal in more and more U.S. states annually.

What else is happening on the global scene? The Catch-22 problem many countries faced when deeming cannabis as dangerous as heroin and LSD is the inability to conduct research on its medical benefits. This is because one could not imagine a medical study on, say, heroin requiring test participants to use the drug. The U.S. and many other governments, therefore, prohibited cannabis research on similar grounds.

Cannabis advocates the world over, however, wanted to be able to prove the plant’s medical benefits. Ultimately the U.S. has permitted very limited research, only using cannabis grown in one facility at the University of Mississippi. After years of applying for and finally obtaining research grants, however, many seeking to conduct tests learned that the quality of product produced at Ole Miss was basically worthless in terms of its scientific value.

The Obama Administration in 2016 announced a plan to significantly increase research opportunities and to permit the growth of cannabis for such purposes outside of Ole Miss. However, in the Trump Administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has essentially shut down the program and the DEA is not issuing any research permits involving a cannabis grow.

Israel, however, has moved forward aggressively on research and is considered the world leader in doing so, backed by the country’s Ministry of Health. In February, for example, they released a published, peer-reviewed study on thousands of cancer patients in Israel over a three-year period. Participants were provided cannabis to treat sleep, pain, nausea and appetite issues often associated with cancer and its treatment. The results: 95.9% of patients reported their condition improved by the use of medical cannabis. The study’s authors declared the use well-tolerated, safe and effective. Another finding of the study could begin to address the opioid epidemic. Most patients participating were taking opioids for their pain, but within six months of starting to use cannabis, 36% stopped taking opioids entirely, and another 10% reduced their opioid use.

While we’re given to understand Israel is undertaking many more studies that may help show additional medical benefits of cannabis, this first study actually has worldwide implications. For example, as we know, in the U.S. cannabis is considered a Schedule I drug, along with heroin and LSD under the Controlled Substances Act. To be labeled as such, the drug has to, among other things, have no known medical benefit. Given the Israeli study, is it still possible to say this?

For the record, Israel was one of the first to legalize medical cannabis in the early 1990s and recently approved a decriminalization bill that will take effect next year. In 2017, there were about 26,000 registered patients, and reports are this could double in 2018. It is said that Israel’s climate and humidity are perfect for growing cannabis. The country also permits, and has seen rapid growth in, the export of cannabis.

As to Israel’s Arab neighbors, recently Lebanon has introduced legislation to legalize medical cannabis. While marijuana is illegal there, Lebanon is actually one of the largest producers of hashish. Legislative advocates say they want to bring dignity to the farmers. Reports are that Egypt also is likely to consider legalization. Other Arab countries maintain strict prohibitions that do not appear likely to change soon.

It also seems that worldwide support for cannabis legalization is growing. The latest US study in June 2018 showed the highest ever support for legalization of cannabis here. Fully 69% of respondents said they strongly or somewhat strongly support legalization. There does remain a divide among parties, as 77% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans are in favor. But the Republican-controlled Congress and the President appear to have begun to notice that a majority of even their own party now desire legalization.

As just one example of sentiment in other countries, a recent study in France showed that 77% of respondents favor legalizing medical cannabis, and 51% support adult use. France has had a very limited medical cannabis program since 2013. Supporters believe the country could generate substantial tax revenues through legalization to support their health care system.

Feelings are changing somewhat rapidly, since an earlier European study as recently as 2014 found that a majority of respondents did not favor legalization. It does appear that Latin American countries are more favorable towards easing restrictions than the somewhat more socially conservative Europeans.

So while US citizens might bemoan the seemingly slow process to legalization and adult use here, especially compared to our neighbors to the North, we are in fact miles ahead of almost all the rest of the world. That said, in just the last few years the spread of legal medical cannabis and decriminalization worldwide is certainly dramatic, and portends for further such steps in the years ahead.

David Feldman

Stay tuned for more updates from the global cannabis community and news about the Hemp Revolution in our upcoming print issue ONE!