Belgium is the land of famed chocolates, tasty waffles and complicated cannabis laws. Even though more than 10 percent of Belgian young adults aged 15 to 34 admit to using cannabis at least once in the past year, cannabis is still illegal in Belgium.
As a tourist, you might be wondering ‘is cannabis legal in Belgium?’ Well, it is not. But there’s a catch. Personal possession of cannabis was decriminalised back in 2003. In the absence of aggravating circumstances, the possession of up to 3 g of cannabis is considered a misdemeanour in Belgium and is punishable by a small fine.
Belgians are allowed to grow cannabis but shouldn’t consume it in public
Cannabis has been decriminalised for personal use in Belgium, and Belgians are allowed to grow one cannabis plant in their homes. A study by Letizia Paoli et al, which was conducted in 2015, found that ‘cannabis cultivation has become endemic in Belgium.’ The authors also found that ‘cannabis cultivation generates limited harms in Belgium’ and that ‘cannabis cultivation should thus not be a law enforcement priority.’
The study concluded as follows:
‘Given the limited harms generated, there is scarce scientific justification to prioritize cannabis cultivation in Belgian law enforcement strategies. […] Given the policy origin of most harms, policy-makers should seek to develop policies likely to reduce such harms.’
And since Belgians are allowed to grow and possess cannabis, they’re also allowed to consume it, but not in public. In Belgium, using cannabis is considered a punishable offense only if it’s problematic (the authorities decide what’s problematic on a case by case basis) or if it causes a public nuisance.
Using cannabis near public areas such as schools is punishable by a large fine (up to €800,000) or even a prison sentence of up to one year.
Belgian cannabis businesses operate in a legal grey area
Hemp is completely legal in Belgium, as it is in the rest of the European Union. However, several years ago the Belgian law did not specifically cover hemp-derived products such as cannabidiol (CBD), so entrepreneurs jumped to capitalise on the situation.
As a result, CBD shops popped up all over Belgium, but especially in crowded Brussels. More than one hundred cannabis stores opened across Belgium almost overnight. People looking to relax or to relieve pain started using CBD and the cannabinoid became quite popular in a short amount of time.
Now, the Belgian law didn’t specify anything about CBD, but the law clearly stated that products containing more than 0.2 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) were illegal. So the police raided CBD shops and confiscated their merchandise, sometimes for several months, to test it.
Then, in 2017, the Belgian government passed a decree stating that cannabis-derived products containing less than 0.2 percent THC are not subjected to the drug law regulating psychotropic and controlled substances. But the decree had a catch. The cannabis-derived products would fall under the purview of the federal medicines agency if the seller claimed they produced health benefits.
So most entrepreneurs decided to label their cannabis-derived products as not suitable for human consumption to avoid authority raids and the confiscation of their products.
One of the differences that make Belgium stand out from most of the other EU countries is that it allows shops to sell dried hemp flowers that have a THC content of less than 0.2 percent. Since April 2019, Belgium has legalised cannabis flowers and classified dried cannabis flower as a tobacco product. This move made cannabis accessible to virtually every Belgian citizen, making it legal in more than 100,000 stores across the country.
Cannabis social clubs gain popularity in Belgium
Cannabis social clubs have existed in Belgium for about 15 years now. The first club appeared after the Belgian government decided that the possession of one cannabis plant or three grams of marijuana will no longer be punishable offences.
The first cannabis social club argued that, by growing a single cannabis plant in the name of each of its registered members, it did not break any laws. And all the social clubs that appeared since then have followed the same model.
However, cannabis social clubs were still raided by law enforcement agencies, had their crops confiscated and faced criminal proceedings.
To join a cannabis social group, an individual has to be a Belgian resident or national over 18 or 21 years of age. Some social clubs also have specific requirements, such as providing a declaration that the candidate has used cannabis before joining or producing a recommendation letter.
Cannabis social clubs supply their members with cannabis flower either directly or through exchange fairs — collective gatherings where members of different clubs can exchange the cannabis strains they’ve cultivated.
In 2016, two of the oldest cannabis social clubs in Belgium joined efforts to develop a blueprint for the regulation of cannabis. Their proposal stated three models for the supply of cannabis: individual growing, cannabis social clubs and via a pharmacy for medical reasons.
The proposal included steps and procedures that should be followed, rules concerning growing sites, transport, delivery, etc. Their plan stated that the harvest produced by individual growers could be bought and distributed by the state, and it recommended that a federal agency should oversee the entire process.
Medical cannabis in Belgium
Belgium legalised medical cannabis in 2015. The decision was seen as progressive at the time, even though the list of diseases that were eligible for cannabis medication was short. In addition, only a single product was eligible by law — Sativex, the oral cannabis spray developed by GW Pharma that can be used as a treatment by those suffering from multiple sclerosis.
Multiple patient associations have called for better access to medical cannabis, claiming that many medical users have to join cannabis social clubs or to cross the border into the Netherlands to get their medicine.
In February 2019, Belgium’s parliamentary Health Committee adopted a bill that facilitates the creation of a cannabis agency. The bill also enabled cannabis to be prescribed to patients for whom usual medicines have little or no use.
In September 2019, members of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives drafted a resolution that called on the federal government to invest in clinical research regarding the effectiveness of cannabinoids as treatment, the controlled production of CBD oil for medical use and the extension of the therapeutic use of cannabinoids for patients.
Will Belgium legalise cannabis?
Cannabis is one of the topics Belgian politicians tackle before every election and then forget shortly after the elections are over. Last year was an election year in Belgium and many politicians expressed their intentions to do more regarding cannabis.
Now, you could say that 2019 was a good year for medical cannabis in Belgium, but it’s difficult to say what the future holds for recreational cannabis in Belgium. Some politicians are calling for cannabis legalisation while members of the government are arguing that the laws are already too lenient.