In October 2018, Canada became the second country after Uruguay—and the first G7 nation—to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. Led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, politicians took the plunge largely to reduce underage access to weed.
So who's next? To formulate some well-educated predictions, we spoke to an ace team of weed experts who have been on the frontline of reform, from region to region, for decades. Come with us as we peek into our bud-crusted crystal ball:
Central and South America
“Mexico will almost certainly legalize and regulate in 2019,” said Tom Blickman, senior project officer at the Transnational Institute, an international social policy NGO based in Holland. Last month, the cross-party Marijuana Regulation Forum met to discuss how Mexico, a country ravaged by drug cartel violence, advances last year's pivotal Supreme Court ruling, which stated that “the effects caused by marijuana do not justify an absolute prohibition on its consumption.”
“We’re very hopeful it will pass by the end of this year,” said Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager and Latin American liaison at the Drug Policy Alliance, a US drug reform NGO. She adds that the situation is not so clear in other countries across the region, with the exception of Uruguay, which started selling legal marijuana last year (albeit with stringent regulations regarding sales in dispensaries that have seen it unavailable in large parts of the country).
Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela have legalized medical weed or decriminalized personal use to varying degrees, while Brazil—currently under the stewardship of President Jair Bolsonaro, who once tweeted that legalization would benefit “traffickers, rapists and hostage takers”—seems unlikely to embrace reform beyond its current medical allowance. As a region, Central and Latin America are politically volatile, but have a recent history of progressive policy, said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “The actions of the United States will be crucial. US reform will also force the UN to reform, and the ripples will cross the globe.”
OUR PREDICTION: Mexico to legalize in 2019; Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile in 2025; Venezuela in 2029.
Last December, legislation was passed in New Zealand allowing the use of medical marijuana. At the same time, it was announced that a binding referendum on legalization and regulation would be held, alongside the general election, in 2020.
“Cannabis law reform is sitting at around 60 percent support in the polls, before we have any specifics about what law reform might look like. That makes many people think it’s a ‘done deal’, but it's more finely balanced than that figure would suggest,” said Sandra Murray, campaign manager for New Zealand’s #makeitlegal campaign. “Support sits at about 72 percent among people under 45—but a big portion of younger people don’t turn out to vote."
Nearby, Australia has legalized cannabis for medical use and a 2016 poll by the National Drug Strategy Household suggested 74 percent of Australians favor decriminalization. Will there be a continental domino effect if New Zealand votes yes in 2020? “In some Australian states, cannabis is already decriminalized and hippy havens such as Nimbin are basically like mini-Aussie Amsterdams,” said Rolles. “It will depend on the next government—a conservative one is less likely to legalize, but public opinion is moving, so it feels inevitable, even if at a state level first, forcing the issue at federal levels rather like the US. Canberra is just about to legalize home-growing too. Australia seems a very likely candidate for reform after New Zealand.”
OUR PREDICTION: New Zealand to legalize in 2020, and Australia in 2023.
All eyes are on Canada. Six months after legalization, the sky has not fallen, but it hasn't been smooth. Most notably, there's been a shortage of government weed supplies. In the US, spirits among reformers are high, despite the recent high-profile failure to legalize in New Jersey. “There is broad political support to get it passed in New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico over the next one or two years,” said Jag Davies, Director of Communications Strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance. "And there is a good chance of New Hampshire and Illinois passing through the legislative process in the next few years.”
WATCH: Smokeables: Pure Canadian Weed-Infused Maple Candy
But the seismic shift will be a law change at federal level. Most Democratic candidates for 2020 support legalization, though George McBride, CEO at Hanway Asssociates, a UK-based cannabis industry consultancy, advised caution. “Despite widespread support, I don’t think any potential incoming Democrat would want it to be the first action of a new presidency. So realistically you’re looking at some time during their first term.”
With ten states already legalizing weed (and another 33 approving it for medical use) and the likelihood of some influential big-hitters following soon, federal reform seems destined regardless of who’s in the Oval Office. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of Americans (including 74 percent of millennials) are in favor of legalizing. “Federal resistance is melting away. It’s just not practical anymore, even under another Republican administration,” said Rolles. “Public opinion, even amongst Republicans, is now a majority and that has been the tipping point as support becomes a political asset rather than a liability.”
OUR PREDICTION: USA to legalize in 2023.
Despite a zephyr of reform blowing across the continent, with many countries moving towards decriminalization (or de facto decriminalization) and medical reform, progress at a national level is slow. Except, that is, for little Luxembourg, whose coalition government has already pledged to legalize weed. “This is most likely at the end of the term of this government, sometime in 2022 or 2023,” said Blickman, adding, “It is notable that Luxembourg's announcement has not been met with public disapproval from neighboring countries.”
It will take one of the bigger European countries jumping on board to inspire a sense of enduring change on the continent. Spain is well placed to break the seal: it has a long history of tolerance, stretching back to the 1970s when the Supreme Court ruled that possession of small amounts of drugs would not be an offense. This has helped lead to an entrenched weed culture and cannabis social clubs across the country. “There’s widespread support for medical and recreational reform,” said McBride. “But the central government doesn't want to concede to the semi-autonomous regions and the regions don’t want to cede to the central government. So at the moment there’s a kind-of deadlock.”
Italy shouldn’t be discounted either. “Italy has a lot of public support for regulation and they have their own system called ‘cannabis light,’ where they can access very low potency cannabis,” said Henry Fisher, chief scientific officer at Cannabis Europa, a European cannabis industry hub.
Holland recently started a four-year experiment wherein the government will supply cannabis to coffee shops in a small number of municipalities. “But it’s a can-kicking exercise,” said Fisher. “We might find that something small like Luxembourg legalizing might inspire them to cut short their plan.” Elsewhere, Switzerland has started a ten-year public health trial, tracking and studying a pool of 5,000 people legally using cannabis, while Belgium and Portugal have both successfully decriminalized and could be considered not-so-dark horses to fully legalize first.
As for the European members of the G7—Germany, France, and the UK—things are moving, albeit slowly. Even so, bookmaker Ladbrokes predicts full UK cannabis legalization is more likely than not—giving VICE odds of 6-4—by 2024. But bookmakers know more about horses than getting high. France seems likely to catch up with Germany and the UK and legalize medical cannabis by the end of the year. “Once one goes, there will likely be a rapid domino effect,” explained Rolles.
And what about our friends in Scandinavia? “Drugs, particularly in Sweden, one of the longstanding global cheerleaders for punitive prohibition, is a topic the Scandinavians seem bizarrely blinkered and backward on,” Rolles said. “That said, there are signs of movement. Norway is exploring decriminalization and has some innovative harm reduction policies, and there are emerging civil society movements for reform across Scandinavia, even in Sweden.”
OUR PREDICTION: Luxembourg, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal to legalize in 2023; Italy in 2024; Holland and Germany in 2025; France in 2026; UK in 2027; Norway in 2029.
In a report from 2018, the CARICOM Commission (which represents 15 member countries in the region) said the following on cannabis: “The commission believes that the end goal for CARICOM should be the dismantling of prohibition in its totality, to be replaced by a strictly regulated framework akin to that for alcohol and tobacco, which are harmful substances that are not criminalized.” It’s a fairly robust statement of intent which, taken at face value, could lead us to envisaging an imminent sweep of legalization across the Caribbean.
Not necessarily so, according to Blickman. “Most Caribbean countries will not take that step if the US does not move, dependent as they are on US aid and trade,” he argued. What seems likely, though, is that the area will broadly mirror Jamaica’s 2018 law changes: small amounts for possession (up to two ounces) or cultivation of five household plants are no longer considered offenses, whilst medical use is authorized and Rastafarians are permitted to smoke for sacramental purposes. “A kind of toleration policy as we have seen for decades in the Netherlands is the most likely compromise in the short term,” said Blickman. After that? Legalization across the region.
OUR PREDICTION: Jamaica, Cuba, and Barbados to legalize in 2026.
It’s possible that Africa will be the continent to embrace widespread cannabis reform the fastest. Last year, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that in private the use and cultivation of cannabis, known locally as dagga, should not be penalized. The bill has yet to be written formally into law and the specifics of the ruling are to be confirmed over the next 18 months, but it’s a crucial development for the region.
“Some countries are positioning themselves to take advantage of the economic opportunity, instead of the patient access or civil rights issues,” McBride said. “It’s going to evolve quite differently to North America or Europe; if the fundamental driver is economic benefit, the quicker you can move towards the larger market and the quicker you're going to see the benefit. A lot of reforms are trying to focus on cashing out of developed countries and selling products into Europe.”
McBride name-checked Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Zimbabwe as undergoing talks, while “Lesotho has already licensed some big companies to export cannabis.” The effect on local cannabis smoking is unclear—the region has high rates of cannabis use regardless of the law. “Many of those places, like Ghana, have only had prohibition in name,” McBride said, adding that he predicts a green rush “with widespread legalization and regulation” over the next decade.
OUR PREDICTION: South Africa to legalize in 2026; Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho in 2027.
For locals, hippies, and trust fund kids, a sunset spliff on a Goan beach is woven into the Indian cultural experience. But it seems unlikely that, in the short- to medium-term, there will be any kind of acceptance of this at a federal level in India. “Official attitudes are very anti-cannabis at the moment,” said Blickman. McBride suggests that “in certain parts of India, cannabis use is de facto legalized and there’s a lot of regional innovation—police forces openly not prosecuting and cannabis social clubs. But a country like India has so many pressing concerns that it’s hard to raise this to an issue of national debate.”
Moving east, medical marijuana was legalized last December in Thailand, as the country gears up to join the exportation rush, with its tropical temperatures perfect for growing for countries that are trying to fulfill their own burgeoning marijuana needs. But that’s likely the extent for now. “Medical cannabis not withstanding, I think legalization is still some way off in Thailand. I'd caveat that with the fact that things are intrinsically unpredictable in the country and region,” Rolles said.
If you’re particularly keen to have a legal joint in Asia, legend might dictate to try North Korea, where reports have claimed it’s freely available and blooming on mountainsides as readily as grass and wheat. Sadly, this image of a smoker’s nirvana isn’t quite correct: “It’s industrial hemp," warned McBride. "And that’s never been illegal.”
OUR PREDICTION: Thailand to legalize in 2029; India in 2030; North Korea never.
There is an Antarctic Treaty signed by 12 countries in 1959 to ensure that “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.” Apart from that, Antarctica has no government and no laws, so technically, as long as no one squabbles over their gear, you can toke away should you find yourself cruising the research stations of the icy province. However, scientists there are governed by the laws of their own land. So in principle, Canadians and Uruguayans can already toke on the South Pole, while Mexicans willing to deal with temperatures of -50°C should be able to roll up in front of the penguins before the end of the year. But then again, what happens in the South Pole stays in the South Pole.
OUR PREDICTION: It's a scientist free for all.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow David Hillier on Twitter.