For those partial to the psychoactive herb cannabis, 20 April (known in the US as 4/20) is a day of celebration for the drug, with groups sometimes gathering to "light up" at the given hour on the given day.
Not so in Belgium, where a drug law dating back more than a century currently outlaws the drug and shrouds the use of its legal component CBD in ambiguity. With no plans for legalisation, the country lags far behind its progressive neighbours Luxembourg and the Netherlands on cannabis-related policy.
Is it time the country considers decriminalising the plant?
Time Magazine traces the term back to 1971 when a group of five students at a high school in California started meeting at 16:20 to smoke cannabis straight after extracurricular activities.
"4/20" soon became their code for weed, and as one of the students who worked with the Grateful Dead (psychedelic rock band) started a ritual of smoking weed on 20 April at 16:20, for which he distributed flyers.
The term and the tradition stuck and spread across the world, and today the number 420 and weed are inseparable.
A punishable crime
But while bordering countries the Netherlands and Luxembourg are far more tolerant of the soft drug, allowing 4/20 to become an annual celebration of the plant, growing or possessing cannabis remains a crime punishable by a fine or imprisonment in Belgium.
Nevertheless, offences have been given a “low prosecution priority” under the conditions that the perpetrator is older than 18, the drug was meant for personal use, weighs less than 3 grams, and the possession does not come with “aggravating circumstances or disturbance of public order”.
Belgium’s drug law is 101 years old; the need to update legalisation has been addressed multiple times by Antwerp councillor Jinnih Beels. The law is currently largely repressive – focusing on punishment – rather than preventive.
Beels calls for the legislation to be updated to regulate the use of drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine, under certain conditions, to help control and contain the drug crisis.
In 2018, scientists also concluded that the current Belgian cannabis policy has harmful consequences for society, as violence and health issues were on the rise.
Action groups #STOP1921 and SMART on Drugs launched a campaign on the 100th anniversary of Belgium’s drug law: "Unhappy Birthday!"
The groups call for decriminalising the possession of all illegal substances for personal use and establishing a parliamentary working group to review drug policy in a humane way.
“It is high time we start the debate and take a critical look at current drug policy. Our contemporary society needs a balanced, pragmatic and modernized drug policy,” the organisations stated.
Advocates for the decriminalisation of drugs also consider the economic benefits that it would bring, given that the National Bank of Belgium estimated the drug consumption market in Belgium at nearly €700 million for 2019.
Campaigners highlighted the costs weighing on society due to the Covid-19 crisis and argue that new regulation for cannabis “could weigh heavily in the balance”.
Last one in the Benelux
The Netherlands is famed for their tolerance of cannabis use since the 70s; Luxembourg is the second European country (after Malta) to legalise growing and using cannabis recreationally.
That makes Belgium the last country in the Benelux where the plant remains fully illegal.
Spain has also decriminalised personal cultivation and use, while the governments of Germany and Switzerland have announced plans to establish a legally regulated market.
CBD, one of the substances found in cannabis, is legally sold in Belgium as an oil. The substance can be bought over the counter or online, as it only contains 0.2% of THC – the substance in weed that gets you high.
However, the consumption of CBD as food is still banned, as Belgium is one of the last European countries to allow it. That means vendors cannot advise customers on how to use CBD oil, as you are allowed to buy it but not swallow it.
CBD oil is commonly applied under the tongue but Belgian vendors must tell customers to consult the internet for how to properly use it, rather than explain it themselves.
Vendors like Seth Ghazaryan, manager of Feeling Light, are frustrated with the current state of affairs. “Here, CBD oil is sold as massage oil or as external therapy oil, so on the skin surface,” he told RTBF.
Calls for legalisation
Calls for legalisation of cannabis in Belgium have intensified in recent years; an official petition was launched in October 2021. Yet this only has 317 signatures out of the 25,000 that are needed for the government to consider the proposal.
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The Labour Party (PvdA) has a detailed plan of action to fight drug abuse and addiction, including the regulation of the production, sale and use of cannabis, while using the tax revenues from cannabis for programmes to fight addiction.
The proposal aims to fight addiction by controlling the quality and the quantity sold and excluding its sale to under 16-year-olds and in places where alcohol is also sold. It would also allow the government to define the rules of production and sale and ban cannabis advertising.