Pass the Duchy: Luxembourg’s grand plan to legalize cannabis

Pass the Duchy: Luxembourg’s grand plan to legalize cannabis

While others are dealing with medical cannabis, Luxembourg wants to become the first in the EU to legalize recreational weed.

Luxembourg has ambitions to legalize recreational cannabis and convince other European countries to do the same.

Sure, you can already pick up some weed in the coffee shops of Amsterdam or in Catalonia’s decriminalized cannabis social clubs. You won’t be arrested for carrying a few grams in countries such as Belgium.

Luxembourg, however, wants to go further and become the first country in the European Union to make cannabis completely legal. Its health ministry is slated to unveil a proposal to start the legislative process this fall, and the goal is for it to become law within two years.

If that happens, Luxembourg will join a small but growing list of countries — Canada, Uruguay and 11 U.S. states — reversing decadeslong drug policies that saw the substance banned and people jailed for violations.

One of the main advocates is Health Minister Etienne Schneider, who cites health reasons as the most important driver. He said young people are already getting weed on the black market, coming into contact with drug dealers who provide cannabis of unknown quality, and getting access to more potentially dangerous drugs.

Legalizing cannabis requires many more steps than just declaring the substance legal. You need an entire regulatory market, including setting taxes and quality checks.


“This drug policy we had over the last 50 years did not work,” Schneider told POLITICO. “Forbidding everything made it just more interesting to young people.”

Under the legislation to be proposed by Schneider and Justice Minister Félix Braz, Luxembourg would legalize the entire cannabis market, from issuing licenses for its production to legalizing its consumption, under a highly regulated structure. It would ban home cultivation and likely impose an age restriction — possibly 18 — for purchase. Schneider also envisions prohibition on purchases by non-residents, as a way to avoid drug tourism.

Despite those measures, neighboring countries remain nervous.

Malte Goetz, a lawyer specializing in the medical cannabis market in Germany, said that Luxembourg’s law could start a domino effect.

“The social pressure will be so high that if you have legalization in one of the EU member states, soon that will be discussed seriously in the other ones,” he said.

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A cannabis store in Montreal, Canada, a day before the country’s legalization in 2018 | Ouellet-Diotte/AFP via Getty Images

EU countries are also deeply divided on cannabis more generally. Most are still grappling with how to make medical cannabis available for patients. Ireland and France only introduced experimental medical cannabis schemes this year — and when they did so, their health ministers made sure to clarify this was not going to lead to legalizing cannabis for pleasure.

An ‘open-minded attitude’

Luxembourg allows medical cannabis and decriminalizes possession of small amounts for recreational use. Buying, selling and growing remain illegal.

But legalizing cannabis requires many more steps than just declaring the substance legal. You need an entire regulatory market, including setting taxes and quality checks.

For now, support for the bill looks strong. The three parties that form the governing coalition in Luxembourg all included legalizing recreational cannabis in their governing agenda, largely driven by young members.

But Luxembourg is grappling with the fact that it’s a small country to which an estimated 200,000 people travel for work each day.

Germany expanded medical cannabis access only after a supreme court order.

Schneider admits it will be difficult striking a balance between keeping borders open and regulating this new market, especially if Luxembourg’s neighbors fear undesired spillover. But he said he wants to get other countries on board and is talking to fellow health ministers.

To date, “our drug policies were not very successful,” he said. “I’m hoping all of us will get a more open-minded attitude toward drugs.”

Colorado lessons

A possible playbook for Luxembourg is the U.S. state of Colorado, the first in the country to legalize recreational cannabis. Legalization advocates say that they chose to frame the issue so that voters view pot the same the way they view alcohol — a substance that is widely available and socially acceptable.

Brian Vicente, one of the main authors of Colorado’s cannabis laws, said the point was not to say that alcohol or cannabis are healthy, it was that alcohol is legally available despite the harm it can cause, while cannabis — often shown to be more benign — is not.

“We’re not saying cannabis is harmless,” Vicente said. “We’re saying we have this substance that’s sort of available. And so there’s hypocrisy there. Do we want to continue to criminalize people for using a less harmful substance?”

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Marijuana plants grow in a greenhouse | Pablo Porciuncula/AFP via Getty Images

Jordan Wellington, who also helped Colorado write its marijuana laws, said that another useful strategy was to address the particular concerns voters had about the effect on their communities. Their goals: Keeping drugs out of the hands of children, preventing black market activity, and protecting public health.

Wellington said he believes that any step toward ending the criminalization of cannabis “is a step in the right direction,” but cautions that Luxembourg’s relatively conservative approach may leave some problems unresolved. No matter where the drug is available, “supply meets demand, whether that supply is legal or illegal.” 

“There is going to be demand for cannabis in Luxembourg from a percentage of those individuals,” he said, adding that barring non-residents from purchasing cannabis will still open up a black market — for example, those without a residence card buying it from residents.

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Luxembourg’s neighboring countries remain nervous | Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

But he also sees Luxembourg following a trend in which lawmakers start with a more conservative approach and end up liberalizing their laws over time. He noted that Illinois, for example, went from restrictive medical cannabis laws to proposing a recreational cannabis law that includes expunging the records of hundreds of thousands charged with cannabis possession.

“Lawmakers are afraid that if something were to go wrong that people could get hurt, and they could get blamed. And so they take very conservative approaches,” he said. “And over time, as they see the problems don’t develop … they slowly, over time, loosen restrictions.”

Feeling paranoid

It also could be possible that a conservative approach is what Luxembourg needs. Alexandra Curley, head of insights at the cannabis consultancy group Prohibition Partners, said Luxembourg is right to try learning from other countries that have made cannabis accessible and run into issues with drug trafficking. Countries need to adopt a policy that works best for their unique situation, she said.

“Similar to the United States, each country in Europe has its own sort of culture and personality that will influence attitudes towards cannabis, whether it’s in the Bible Belt in the States, or whether it’s a particularly conservative European country,” she said.

“Luxembourg is a very small country, but it’s also quite a powerful one,” she added. “Everybody’s just waiting for that first person to take the plunge and see how it works out.”

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Female cannabis plants in a grow room | Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Neighbors like Germany, meanwhile, might be reluctant. As Goetz, the lawyer, explained, Germany expanded medical cannabis access only after a supreme court order.

In Germany, there is a consensus that there is a reason why medical cannabis is allowed and that there are patients who benefit from it,” Goetz said. “So there’s no reason for prohibiting that. But there is definitely not a consensus yet on legalizing it for recreational use.”

As Wellington sees it, however, Luxembourg shouldn’t let reluctance among neighbors and broader uncertainty stop it from moving forward with legalization. His advice is: “Get on with it.”


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