Home > Cannabis legislation in Europe: an overview.

Guiney, Ciara (2017) Cannabis legislation in Europe: an overview. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 62, Summer 2017, pp. 10-11.

PDF (Drugnet issue 62)

A recent study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) carried out an overview of cannabis legislation in Europe focusing primarily on ‘recreational’ use.1 In Europe, cannabis is the most commonly talked-about drug referred to in drug law offences reports (57%), and the most frequently used illicit drug in young adults (aged 15‒34 years).2 Debates on the prohibition and permittance of cannabis use and supply are ongoing. This study aimed to provide answers to commonly asked questions that arise when cannabis legislation is being discussed.


What is cannabis?

Cannabis is defined as ‘any plant of the genus Cannabis’, which includes Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa and any other species that is created in the future (p. 24).3 In most European Union (EU) countries, legal control occurs if the plant is able to produce a usable psychoactive substance called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A higher concentration of THC (≤20%) is found in female flowers and resin-producing trichomes (plant hairs). Recreational cannabis is sold as herbal cannabis (i.e. resin-coated flowers) or cannabis resin (i.e. resin extracted and sold on its own). Mean potency of European samples of resin and herb have increased since 2006 to 90% and 80%, respectively. National mean THC potency ranges from 4% to 28% (cannabis resin) and 3% to 22% (cannabis herb) in EU member states.1


Obligations by countries to control cannabis

In accordance with international treaties, national drug laws are required to control the whole plant. However, in some EU member states, allowances are made for plants grown for fibre that have low THC content (<0.2%). National control is not required for cannabis seeds. By law cannabis or cannabis-based products may be used for medicinal purposes in EU member states, for example, THC in capsules, cannabis extract (e.g. Sativex®, a mouth spray used to treat multiple sclerosis), and dried cannabis flowers for vaporising or making tea. No EU member state allows cannabis to be smoked for medicinal purposes.


The control of cannabis and other drugs comes under United Nations conventions and stipulates that all controlled drugs must be restricted to medicinal or scientific purposes.3 Any unlawful behaviour (e.g. possession, acquisition, distribution or offering for sale, etc.) must be penalised, with serious offences being punished by withdrawal of freedom. With regard to cannabis use, the EU provides no ‘harmonised’ law to control cannabis usage (p. 9);1 the responsibility for responding to drug use offences is placed solely with EU member states. However, EU law does exist for crimes related to the trafficking of cannabis.4 With the aim of having a common approach to tackling drug trafficking throughout the EU, minimum provisions have been outlined for basic offences and penalties since 2004 (p. 1).4 Possession for personal consumption was not included in these provisions.


Laws and associated guidelines

Within EU member states, penalties applied to cannabis offences can be grouped in two ways. In some member states (e.g. Italy, UK and Portugal), cannabis is not treated like other drugs in that the level of penalty applied is linked to the level of harm caused. In this instance, penalties obtained for cannabis-related offences are less severe that those provided for other drugs, whereas in other member states, the same penalties, which tend to be more severe, are applied to all drugs. Where cannabis use is viewed as a minor offence, penalties are lower than that for other drugs (e.g. Ireland, Belgium and Luxembourg).


A positive drug test for drug use is not viewed as an offence under UN conventions; however, in some member states drug use is considered a serious offence and can result in police arrest (e.g. France, Norway and Cyprus). Nonetheless, how the law is enforced differs between countries; for instance, it can be used to enforce public order or to apprehend drug users, or can act as a road safety policy, for example, in tests for drug-related driving.


The penalty for possession of cannabis for personal use varies across the EU. The probability of being imprisoned for ‘small amounts’ has been declining since 2000 (p. 13). However, the definition of a small amount varies in EU member states; for example, in Belgium, imprisonment can occur for being in possession of small amounts of cannabis, yet police have been advised to record non-problematic cases locally instead of centrally. While in other EU member states (e.g. Denmark, France and UK), police and prosecutors are allowed to apply either a non-custodial penalty or dismiss the case.


Penalties for selling or trafficking cannabis vary substantially among EU member states, which makes comparison problematic between countries. Where cannabis supply is viewed as minor, penalties can range from two to three years (Denmark and Spain) to life imprisonment (Cyprus and Ireland). Other factors can also influence the outcome, such as whether the offender was involved with organised crime or gangs, the motive for the offence, or which court the offender was tried in. Driving under the influence of cannabis is considered illegal across all EU member states; however, how laws are phrased or interpreted varies considerably.


Cannabis offenders in practice

An examination of legislation in EU member states does not provide an insight into how it is applied. This is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies, which may or may not be authorised to enforce legislation or may have to adhere to local or national directives that lay down how different offences should be responded to. Punishments for cannabis use provided by EU member states include fines, warnings, and community work orders, and in some cases suspended prison sentences. More often than not, the type of drug implicated has not been identified. The route taken by most member states to penalise cannabis use is via decriminalisation or depenalisation of offences by using non-criminal punishments or closing the case as minor. However, some member states use alternatives to punishment, for example, diverting offenders to rehabilitative or treatment services instead.


Future of cannabis legislation

In the previous two decades, the aim of legislation has been to decrease or remove prison penalties for minor cannabis possession offences. Primarily, legislative changes were applied to the level of penalty to ensure that the sentences were consistent, their severity corresponded with the health risks associated with different drugs, and to ensure that rehabilitation/treatment was given precedence ahead of punishment. No EU member state has removed all penalties nor have they made the supply of cannabis legal. More recently, decriminalisation or legalisation of recreational cannabis use is being debated among a number of EU member states. Although not discussed in this study, medicinal and industrial use of cannabis is also being debated.



This study provided an overview of legislative approaches to cannabis across EU member states. There is no common approach to targeting cannabis offences. In fact, considerable disparities were illustrated in how countries discern laws and penalties for cannabis sale or use. For legislative purposes, EU member states either treat all drugs the same, or view cannabis offences as less serious, or in some cases harsher penalties are applied. In the previous two decades, nearly 50% of EU member states altered legislation that targeted cannabis use. The impact on cannabis use is unclear, as no rigorous scientific evaluations were carried out to determine the effectiveness of the legislative changes. To date, cannabis policy is the topic of ongoing debate throughout EU member states and its development is being monitored by the EMCDDA.


1    European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2017) Cannabis legislation in Europe: an overview. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27071/

2    European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2016) European drug report 2016: trends and developments. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25579/

3    United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2013) The international drug control conventions. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Available online at http://www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CND/Int_Drug_Control_Conventions/Ebook/The_International_Drug_Control_Conventions_E.pdf

4    Council of the European Union (2004) Council framework decision 2004/757/JHA. Official Journal of the European Union, 11 Nov 2004, L 335/8. Available online at https://db.eurocrim.org/db/en/doc/247.pdf

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 62, Summer 2017
June 2017
Page Range
pp. 10-11
Health Research Board
Issue 62, Summer 2017

Repository Staff Only: item control page