The legal status of cannabis for personal use is one of the most controversial policy issues in the European Union. Although cannabis is a classified narcotic drug placed under control by the United Nations and by all EU Member States, the measures adopted to control it at national level vary considerably, as shown in the table, click here to access the information country by country.

Cannabis extracts — marijuana, hashish and cannabis oil — are classified as narcotic drugs under both Schedules I and IV of the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Art. 36 requests State Parties to “adopt such measures as will ensure that …possession… of drugs contrary to the provisions of this Convention… shall be punishable offences when committed intentionally...”. The active principles of cannabis, the cannabinoids THC and specifically dronabinol (delta-9-THC), are classified as psychotropic substances under Schedules I and II respectively of the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Art 22 of this echoes the terms of the 1961 Convention above, stating that “each Party shall treat as a punishable offence, when committed intentionally, any action contrary to a law or regulation adopted in pursuance of its obligations under this Convention… “. Finally, the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic of 1988, Art. 3 requests establishment of a criminal offence for possession of drugs for the purposes of trafficking (Art. 3.1(a)(iii)), and for the possession for personal consumption (Art.3.2).  This latter has been the subject of a wide range of interpretations and analyses; see ELDD’s Legal Reports for example the EMCDDA thematic paper “Illicit drug use in the EU: legislative approaches”, section 1, and Chapter 7 of A Cannabis Reader, EMCDDA Monograph 8; Cannabis Control in Europe.

The EU Member States have transposed the UN precepts concerning the penal or administrative control of cannabis, and have applied them according to their own local or regional circumstances. This has resulted in a heterogeneous 'legal map' regarding cannabis offences: some countries or regions tolerate certain forms of possession and consumption; other countries apply administrative sanctions or fines; while still others apply penal sanctions. Those laws drafted not long after the UN Convention of 1961 may reflect its concentration on cannabis, coca and opium as well as providing more general drug control measures for all narcotic substances.

Within the EU, the Council Resolution on cannabis adopted in 2004 (CORDROGUE 59) requests Member States to take measures to discourage personal use of cannabis, such as enhancing the communication with cannabis users especially the very young, to inform and train parents, teachers, media professionals, prison staff and police officers, and to promote networking among health and education professionals on cannabis-related issues. The Council also invites Member States to take measures against Internet sites providing information on cultivation and promoting use of cannabis.

The accompanying table outlines the legal status of cannabis when used or cultivated/possessed for personal use in the different countries, except where stated. Most information on trafficking can be found in the Topic overview on trafficking.

Despite the different legal approaches towards cannabis, a common trend can be seen across the Member States in the development of alternative measures to criminal prosecution for cases of use and possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use without aggravating circumstances. Fines, cautions, probation, exemption from punishment and counselling are favoured by most European justice systems. It is of interest to note that cannabis in particular is frequently distinguished from other substances and given special treatment in these cases, either in the law, by prosecutorial directive, or by the judiciary. Nevertheless, police arrests for drug offences, mainly those involving cannabis and mainly use-related offences, are increasing in several countries – see the EMCDDA Statistical bulletin for further details.

For the legal status of medicinal cannabis, see also the 2002 report “Medicinal Cannabis and derivatives: a legal analysis of the options, their limitations, and current practice in the EU” in the ELDD’s Legal reports section.

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