The legality of cannabis varies from country to country. Possession of cannabis is illegal in most countries and has been since the beginning of widespread cannabis prohibition in the late 1930s. However, possession of the drug in small quantities has been decriminalized in many countries and sub-national entities in several parts of the world. Furthermore, possession is legal or effectively legal in the Netherlands, Uruguay, and in the US states of Colorado (Colorado Amendment 64), Oregon (Oregon Ballot Measure 91 (2014)), Alaska and Washington (Washington Initiative 502) as the federal government has indicated that it will not attempt to block enactment of legalization in those states. The federal district of Washington D.C. legalized cannabis for possession and use in 2015, but was blocked by a Congressional rider from instituting commercial sales and taxation. Cannabis is also legal in some U.S cities such as Portland and South Portland, both of which are in Maine. The United States Department of Justice is allowing all recognized Native American Reservations to regulate the legalization of cannabis, and the laws are allowed to be different from Federal and state law. On 10 December 2013, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize the sale, cultivation, and distribution of cannabis.

The medicinal use of cannabis is legal in a number of countries, including Canada, the Czech Republic and Israel. The federal law in the United States no longer has a ban on the use of medical marijuana. States that allow medical marijuana and the sale of it can now do so without having to deal with the federal government.

Some countries have laws which are not as vigorously prosecuted as others, but apart from the countries which offer access to medical marijuana, most countries have various penalties ranging from lenient to very severe. Some infractions are taken more seriously in some countries than others in regard to the cultivation, use, possession or transfer of cannabis for recreational use. A few jurisdictions have lessened penalties for possession of small quantities of cannabis, making it punishable by confiscation and a fine, rather than imprisonment. Some jurisdictions/drug courts use mandatory treatment programs for young or frequent users, with freedom from narcotic drugs as the goal and a few jurisdictions permit cannabis use for medicinal purposes. Drug tests to detect cannabis are increasingly common in many countries and have resulted in jail sentences and loss of employment. However, simple possession can carry long jail sentences in some countries, particularly in parts of East Asia and Southeast Asia, where the sale of cannabis may lead to life imprisonment or even execution.

As of 2015, Argentina, Bangladesh, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Jamaica, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, Germany, the Netherlands, North Korea, some U.S. states and cities as well as some territories of Australia have the least restrictive cannabis laws while China, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam have the strictest cannabis laws.

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