The cannabis plant has been used by mankind for more than 5000 years for recreational and medicinal purposes, and has been legal for use and trade throughout the world for most of its history. It was only after the 19th century that changes in the legal landscape began to take place and marijuana was labelled as an illegal substance. In this article we will look at the evolution of the legal framework and government policies related to marijuana.
Cannabis in ancient cultures
Historical documents indicate that cannabis has been used all over the world since ancient times: from China to India, Greece, Egypt or even Native American tribes, the flowers, leaves and seeds of the plant were mixed in different infusions, tonics or smoked to treat pain, inflammation, digestive problems, to anaesthetise patients during surgeries or to heighten experiences in religious ceremonies. Until the early 20th century, the plant was marketed all over the world and even in the United States, people could buy cannabis tonics in any general shop.
How did cannabis become illegal?
During the early 20th century, as a consequence of the Mexican Revolution and the armed conflict in that country, there was an influx of Mexican immigrants to the United States. These immigrants brought with them their cultural practices, including the recreational use of cannabis, which they referred to as "marijuana". The US government launched an anti-immigrant campaign that focused on demonising cannabis use among Mexican communities and sought to associate the substance with immigrants. Hence the name change: from then on, the plant began to be known as "marijuana" in English as well, to make it sound foreign.
This was followed by racist religious propaganda, such as the infamous film "Reefer Madness", which portrayed young people being seduced into a world of moral decadence, violence, madness and even murder as a result of their cannabis use. The exaggerated and sensationalist narrative was intended to instil fear and generate public outrage against marijuana.
The historical context:
After World War II, the United States became a global superpower with significant influence on international policy. Through diplomatic efforts and international organisations such as the United Nations, the US government began to actively promote marijuana prohibition policies in other countries.
Many countries, especially those with close ties to the US or seeking diplomatic relations, adopted this approach and enacted laws criminalising cannabis use and possession. This was often seen as a way to align with international norms and avoid potential repercussions for trade or international relations.
Current legal status
In recent years, many countries have changed regulations around marijuana. A growing body of scientific research has shed light on the plant's potential medicinal benefits, which has helped to disprove entrenched stigmas and misinformation. This has led to greater acceptance of marijuana as a legitimate therapeutic option for a variety of conditions.
In addition, changes in social attitudes towards its use, and the economic potential of the cannabis industry - with its job creation, tax revenues and opportunities for innovation - have also played a significant role in influencing countries to reconsider their stance and regulate cannabis rather than criminalise it.
Countries that have legalised cannabis
Uruguay became the first country to fully legalise cannabis for recreational use in 2013, followed by Canada in 2018. Both countries have established regulated systems for the production, distribution and sale of cannabis.
Cannabis laws in the United States vary from state to state, but to date, several states have already legalised cannabis for recreational use, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
Some European countries, such as the Netherlands, have allowed the sale of cannabis in coffeeshops for many years, while others, such as Portugal and Spain, have decriminalised its personal use.
Cannabis in Barcelona
Particularly in Barcelona, Catalonia, a growing cannabis community has emerged known for its marijuana dispensaries and clubs called Asociaciones Cannábicas. These are non-profit associations that facilitate the cultivation and consumption of cannabis by their members. To become a member, you must be at least 18 years old and apply for an invitation on the club's website.
Is cannabis legal in Barcelona?
Cannabis in Spain and Catalonia is considered decriminalised, but not legal. This means that while it is not a crime to carry a small amount of marijuana that can be considered for personal use, and it is not illegal to consume it in your private residence, car or weed club, it would be illegal to do so in public, sell it or carry large amounts of weed.
Fortunately, the world is changing its policies and more and more countries are legalising or decriminalising cannabis use every year. In the end, the prohibition approach has proven to cause more harm than good, so we can only hope that governments have learned their lesson and from now on start regulating rather than prohibiting.