Weed World

Lessons from Marijuana Legalization Around the Globe

A worker harvests cannabis plants at a plantation near the Israeli city of Nazareth, May 28, 2013. Amir Cohen / Reuters

In the blink of an eye, global debates about cannabis regulation have shifted from “whether” to “how.” In 2014, Uruguay became the first nation to explicitly regulate cannabis from seed to sale. Its preferred strategy? State-regulated production, cannabis clubs, and personal growing. Meanwhile, four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have moved ahead with legal regulation, Colorado and Washington being the first, and the federal government seems unlikely to intervene. More states, possibly even California, look set to follow. Likewise, in the rest of the world, there are a number of gray-area regulatory systems, including in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain. All offer insights into how the United States—and other countries—might tackle the “how.”


In 2015, researchers at RAND produced an exhaustive study on cannabis legalization. The core insight was that “legalization is not simply a binary choice between making the production, sale, and possession of the drug legal on the one hand and continuing existing prohibitions on the other.” The report’s authors suggest that, if states do pursue legalization, a state monopoly, in which the government controls price, production methods, and quantities produced, is likely the most attractive supply model. Drug policy experts Professor Mark Kleiman and Jeremy Ziskind offer a similar analysis in their contribution to the London School of Economics Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy Report, writing, “The debate over how to legalise cannabis tends to assume that for-profit commercial enterprise is the default option. Legalising cannabis on the alcohol model may, however, be the second-worst option (behind only continued prohibition).”

Legalization regimes have two facets: rules for medical marijuana and rules for recreational marijuana. In the United States, states have opted for a spectrum of models to deal with medical marijuana. Some states’ medical laws are considered so lenient as to constitute de facto legalization, for example in parts of California. New Jersey and New York, due to regulatory design or a lack of support from their governors,

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