AuthorEscobar, Chris

This note will broadly examine the treatment of marijuana in four countries: Singapore, Uruguay, Italy, and the United States with brief allusions to other countries to illustrate the various degrees of legality. Treating each of these four principle countries as a case study, the underlying policies and impacts of marijuana laws around the globe shall come to light. By comparing and contrasting the various laws, policies, and approaches taken around the world, a path for the ideal method of marijuana regulation may unveil itself. That overall path currently trends in the direction of medicinal legalization (1) and decriminalization for recreational use, (2) but should begin to head toward adding full recreational legality with regulations that standardize the end product, distribution, and consumption in a similar manner to alcohol.

The analysis of the laws and policies of each country shall explore the following issues in a systematic process: first, this note answers whether or not marijuana usage is legal in a given country. (3) Then, if marijuana usage is not legal, the extent of punishment is discussed along with the impacts of that punishment. Alternatively, if marijuana usage is legal, this note looks at the extent of a given country's regulation, including whether usage is allowed recreationally or for medicinal purposes only, the extent of taxation, the implementation of potency limits, or age restrictions. Following this analysis may illustrate why marijuana should attain legal status for both medicinal and recreational purposes, with corresponding regulations for each.


Before embarking into this analysis, definitional and contextual groundwork must clarify and inform the discussion. At a basic level, what is marijuana? How and why is it used, and what are the effects? Once this is established, the discussion will move into snapshots of the various countries and assessing the justifications and overall effectiveness of their respective policies.

Marijuana broadly refers to the flower of the cannabis plant. (4) Marijuana is typically smoked in the form of a "joint" (or marijuana cigarette) or some form of smoking apparatus such as a pipe. (5) However, it may also be consumed in an edible form, often cooked into common foods such as brownies, refined into concentrated oils, or even absorbed through topical ointments and lotions. (6) The usage of marijuana arises in medicinal, recreational, and religious contexts.

Usage of marijuana as a medicine traces back over ten thousand years. (7) Modern healthcare still utilizes medicinal marijuana to this day to lessen the impacts of numerous severe and debilitating symptoms, (8) and researchers believe they may find new applications for marijuana as a potential cure to diseases such as cancer. (9) For example, strong evidence suggests the effectiveness of marijuana as a safer alternative to opiates and other pain killers, (10) the usage of which has been described as an "epidemic" causing addiction, overdose, and death." The adverse side effects of marijuana are few and generally benign, particularly when compared to the aggregate benefits the drug bestows. (12)

People have also used marijuana as a recreational drug. Using marijuana triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, a chemical tied to the reward center of the brain and associated with pleasure. (13) The recreational effects stem from the general feelings of joy, relaxation, and heightened sensory perception. (14) Marijuana usage has achieved popularity in American pop culture, through movies, music, and celebrities heralding the recreational effects (15) such as "the giggles," (16) "the munchics," (17) and making music and other forms of media generally more appealing. (18) The idea that marijuana is a "gateway" drug is dubious at best because no causal link between marijuana usage and later usage of more dangerous drugs has been established. (19) Overall, research on the effects of marijuana may have been stifled as a result of its illegality, preventing a full understanding of the impacts of marijuana. (20)

Various religions also condone the usage of marijuana as part of their spiritual canon. Perhaps most famously, Rastafarians view marijuana as sacred, the usage of which, they argue, is explicitly encouraged by the text of the Christian Bible. (21) Additionally, members of the Hindu faith drink Bhang, a marijuana-based beverage, a part of religious holidays. (22) Countries predominantly connected to these religions treat marijuana for religious purposes uniquely, (23) but such discussion is largely beyond the scope of this note.

For historical purposes, much of the world has previously agreed to a series of treaties that outlaw marijuana. Perhaps the most prominent is the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, (24) a United Nations Convention treaty signed in 1961 with 154 international parties. (25) This convention made it so that all non-medical consumption of marijuana would be banned across the world. (26) It stands to reason that many signatory countries may have written their drug laws to implement this treaty. (27) While the basic reference of these treaties is relevant, the topic which they cover is outside of the purview of this paper.

With the definition of marijuana set out alongside the contexts and justifications for usage, this note will begin by elaborating on the extreme outer boundaries of legal treatment. On one pole lies Singapore, with their mandatory death penalty for mere possession. On the other pole sits Uruguay, a country with full medicinal and recreational legality. Then, this note will show how Italy takes a more moderate approach with legalized industrial hemp that opens the door for "cannabis light," a low potency version of marijuana similar in principle to 3.2 percent beer.28 Finally, the United States, sitting indecisively on the proverbial fence, will be detailed with some references to the different treatments among various localities within the nation.

  1. Singapore's Mandatory Death Penalty

    In Singapore, marijuana is illegal under the Misuse of Drags Act ("MDA"). (29) Section 5 of MDA deals with the distribution of drugs (which includes marijuana under the law), (30) MDA [section] 8 covers possession and consumption, (31) and MDA [section] 8A outlaws Singapore residents from consuming drugs outside of the nation's borders. (32) In addition to traditional methods, such as searching a person or premises, MDA [section] 8 can be enforced via MDA [section] 31, which allows Singaporean officials to administer a drug test, the failure of which is sufficient to constitute possession. (33) To decline to be tested is considered obstructing the search, which is also an offense under MDA [section] 30, which punishes obstruction with a police officer's search. (34) A police officer may search somebody's property, vehicle, or person without a warrant if they reasonably suspect that a search is necessary to catch a violator of the crime under MDA [section] 24. (35)

    To explain this in a hypothetical scenario, imagine a twenty-three-year-old Singaporean resident who studied in a foreign country during their final year of college. Prior to returning last month, the student tried marijuana with his friends. Now back home in Singapore, he goes out with his friends to a shopping center, where he shares a story about his travels and when he tried marijuana. A police officer overhears the conversation, and now suspects that the student has violated the law. This police officer may now demand the student to take a drug test by hair follicle, (36) which can detect the presence of marijuana going back ninety days, without a warrant. (37) The student has no choice but to take the test because refusal is considered an automatic violation. (38) The student would then be guilty of violating the law under MDA [section] 8 (39) and would be punished. Under the punishing guidelines, the student might spend a decade in prison for having traces of marijuana on a drug test and nothing more. (40) If he committed this offense twice, he might get thirteen years in prison and twelve strokes of a cane under MDA [section] 33. (41)

    MDA [section] 5 distribution offenses arc equally easy to prove and even more harshly punished. Offenders in possession of more than fifteen grams of marijuana (42) arc presumed to have an intent to distribute under MDA [section] 17 unless it can be affirmatively proven otherwise. (43) That quantity, equivalent to about the size of an orange, can result in twenty years in prison and fifteen strokes of a cane. (44) Possession at a level of five hundred grams (45) brings about an automatic mandatory death penalty, (46) unless the accused person can satisfy MDA [section] 33B. (47) To do this, the accused person must prove that their role in possessing was restricted only to transportation and that they cither helped authorities significantly in disrupting the drug trade or that they suffered from "such abnormality of the mind that substantially impaired his mental responsibility." (48) If the accused person can establish both of these elements, then the judge has discretion, but no obligation, to impose a life sentence and a minimum of fifteen strokes of a cane. (49)

    The MDA imposes a low burden to establish a marijuana crime, where mere suspicion can trigger an offense. Further, a violation can carry harsh consequences, such as the death penalty, with few opportunities for lenience. However, this harsh penalty brings with it a remarkably strong deterrent effect. (50) Singapore actively enforces these laws, so the deterrent effect is not a phantom or a mirage. (51) Further, MDA [section] 34 offers some protection because it provides drug addicts with the opportunity for rehabilitation. (52) Strict laws like this arc typical in Singapore; monitoring and enforcement of the MDA is just as intensive as any other law, and as a result...

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