Top Five Countries to Watch for International Cannabis Reform in 2024
By Jason Adelstone
Nov 6, 2023
While the cannabis industry in the United States awaits a marijuana scheduling decision from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), many countries around the world continue to move forward with liberalizing their cannabis policies as a superior method of promoting the health and welfare of their citizens.
In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at five countries poised to make waves in the cannabis landscape in 2024, including Germany, Thailand, Colombia, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland.
Germany is the largest country in the E.U. attempting to implement some form of marijuana legalization.
On the heels of Malta’s marijuana legalization efforts, the German coalition government promoted a policy of implementing full commercial legalization, only to run headfirst into the reality facing any E.U. country with similar aspirations—the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an international drug treaty to which almost all countries are a party. The Single Convention allows countries to pursue certain types of cannabis programs (i.e., medical and industrial use) but stops short at adult-use systems. While the Single Convention does not include a robust mechanism to enforce this prohibition (as Canada and Uruguay are aware), E.U. drug laws do, and are intertwined with Single Convention obligations. As such, Germany retreated from its plan of full commercial legalization, instead pushing forward with incremental reforms that include a two-phased approach:
Phase 1: decriminalization and the establishment of social clubs
Phase II: commencing adult-use pilot programs, similar to what will start this year in Switzerland
Although this two-tier system falls short of a full commercial program, it is still an important and landmark shift by a powerful E.U. nation that will further advance similar efforts within the region.
Despite opposition from conservative representatives, the legalization measure passed the Bundesrat, which is part of Germany’s legislature comprised of members representing individual German states. (Imagine the Bundesrat like the U.S. Congress if one chamber was formed of 50 state Governors.) The legislation must now survive three readings in the Bundestag (Germany’s legislative chamber composed of federally elected lawmakers), for which one reading has already concluded. The final reading is scheduled for November 16, 2023. Once passed, the legislation will go back to the Bundesrat, where it can once again be debated. Importantly, at that point it cannot be stopped from taking effect.
As such, 2024 should see Germany implement the first phase of legalization and introduce legislation for the second phase aimed at legalizing adult-use pilot programs.
In June of 2022, Thailand surprised the world when it removed the marijuana plant from the country’s list of controlled substances and decriminalized consumable marijuana products (does not include flower) containing no more than 0.2% THC.
The change was intended to promote economic opportunities for local farmers and average Thai citizens and increase access to medical marijuana for those who need it. This surprise move was spearheaded by Anutin Charnvirakul, leader of the Bhumjaithai Party and Health Minister of Thailand at the time.
Since July of 2022, Thailand has seen an explosion in marijuana retailers in Thailand. To reign in the proliferation of non-medical marijuana operators, the government tried but failed to implement regulations that would have tightened controls on the market. The government could not come to a consensus on regulations, so the Thai marijuana market has been operating without much direction for almost a year and a half.
In August of 2023, the more conservative Pheu Thai Party took over control of the Thai government, placing Srettha Thavisin as Prime Minister. The Pheu Thai Party ran, in part, on a platform that promised to eliminate the adult-use marijuana market in Thailand and ensure that marijuana remains accessible strictly for medical purposes. It is unclear and unlikely, however, that strict prohibition will occur since the second largest political party in the Pheu Thai governing coalition is the Bhumjaithai Party, and Anutin Charnvirakul (the previous Health Minister who spearheaded the decriminalization in 2022) was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minster in September of 2023.
What seems more likely is the passage of responsible regulation that will restrict, rather than eliminate, the current open market system. In 2024, we will likely see an attempt to transition the market to a proper medical/therapeutic focus rather than an adult-use focus. What we likely won’t see is the marijuana plant being placed back on the scheduled substance list or a complete prohibition on non-medical sales.
Instead, the Thai Government will focus on regulations that ensure all operators are licensed, and the industry operates under specific health and safety guidelines. Additionally, it wouldn’t be surprising if regulators even carve out specific areas where more liberal consumption can occur, especially at tourist destinations. If the Thai government can come together to responsibly regulate this market and ensure opportunities for small farmers and local operators, then Thailand could become the third country to legalize a commercial adult-use program, even if it is promoted as a medical one.
2023 saw the defeat of a two-year process to legalize marijuana in Colombia. During the eighth and final reading, the legalization bill fell short of the 54-vote threshold it needed for passage in the Senate.
While this was disappointing news, many optimistic observers felt that this was inevitable since the current presidential administration did not introduce the legislation. Almost immediately after this failed vote, a new bill (one likely supported by the Petro Administration) was introduced and has already begun working its way through the two-year process needed for passage. The current legislation seeks to amend Article 49 of the Constitution to create an exception that would allow for a legal adult-use cannabis market. It proposes to legalize cannabis for adults and create a regulated market with tax benefits for local municipalities.
The current bill advanced through the first of eight readings on August 30, 2023, and there is renewed hope that this bill will succeed where the previous bills have failed since President Petro has recently been more vocal about the prospects of legalizing marijuana in Colombia to reduce influence from the illicit market.
With Germany taking a step back from full commercial legalization, all eyes are now on the Czech Republic to take that leap. The Czech Republic announced last year that it would move forward with comprehensive cannabis reform by early 2024.
A current version of the legalization bill proposes domestic cultivation, the establishment of social clubs, and the licensed sale of cannabis for people over the age of 18. Currently, government agencies are providing feedback before the bill is put up for a vote. Of the five political parties that make up the governing coalition, it has been reported that four support the proposals put forth in the current bill.
One key question that remains is how the Czech Republic will escape the same fate that Germany faced as it relates to E.U. law and the Single Convention. Since the Czech Republic is much smaller than Germany, it may have the ability to supply domestic demand entirely from domestic cultivation. This is an essential distinction from Germany, which would not have come close to supplying the needed market with purely domestic-grown marijuana.
Either way, by early 2024, we will hopefully see whether the Czech Republic moves forward with full legalization or takes a similar approach to Malta and Germany by simply implementing a social club model and potentially some pilot programs (the Czech Republic already decriminalized possession of marijuana in 2010).
Switzerland is taking a unique approach to investigating the legalization of adult-use marijuana by commencing pilot programs intended to gain a better understanding of the societal outcomes of a regulated adult-use market.
These pilot programs are expected to begin at the end of this year and will last for up to five years. Several Jurisdictions have already approved programs, including Basel, Bern, Biel/Bienne, Lucerne, Geneva, and Zurich. The studies will involve hundreds to several thousand participants (as determined by each jurisdiction) who will be legally permitted to purchase marijuana at designated locations after each participant passes a medical suitability test and an online survey.
The results of these programs will help guide potential adult-use marijuana regulation in Switzerland, which is exciting because Switzerland is not an E.U. Member (though it does participate in the free movement of goods with the E.U. and thus is subject to certain obligations of E.U. law) and therefore would not necessarily have the same concerns with legalizing marijuana as other E.U. nations faced.
If your cannabis business needs help with legal planning, regulatory support, corporate guidance, and strategies for international expansion, or if you’d like to stay up to date on international cannabis policy, Vicente LLP’s Federal and International Law and Policy team can help. Contact us for more information on getting started!