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The United Arab Emirates has a track record of dishing out super-harsh drug penalties. UAE Defies Global Trend Towards Cannabis Liberalization As the cannabis industry is growing across much of Western Europe and North America, businesses would be wise to familiarise themselves

Man Jailed for 25 Years In Dubai Over Small Amount of CBD Vape Oil

A 24-year-old British football coach has been jailed for 25 years in Dubai after police found a small amount of CBD vape oil in his car.

Billy Hood claims he was forced to sign a false confession to trafficking the drug, which is legal to vape in the UK and is usually used for treating pain.

Although it does not get you high, CBD, a chemical found in cannabis, is illegal in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because it contains trace elements of THC, the psychoactive component of weed.

The Worst Places in the World to Get Busted with Weed

“There are two crimes here,” said George McBride, managing director of Hanway Associates, a UK-based cannabis industry consultancy. “Forcing someone to sign a false confession & possession of a harmless medicine. One crime will ruin the culprit’s life and the other will likely go unpunished. The drug war turns police into gangsters and patients into criminals. Boycott the UAE.”

Hood, a former semi-pro player from west London, worked as a football coach in the UAE before his arrest in January. It is a country notorious for its ultra zero-tolerance stance on drug-related offences.

In 2017 another British man, Connor Clements, 24 at the time, was sentenced to two years in jail after he moved to Dubai and took a drug test which showed he’d consumed cannabis.

In 2008 Keith Brown, a council youth development officer from the West Midlands, famously was sentenced to four years after customs officers in Dubai found a speck of cannabis smaller than a grain of sugar stuck onto the soul of his shoe.

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UAE is one of a collection of countries that hand out the death penalty for some drug offences, although the last time it executed someone for a drug crime was 2016.

This week a court in Singapore, where at least 27 people are in jail awaiting to be hanged for drug offences, dismissed the appeal of a man against a death sentence of hanging for allegedly smuggling 1kg of weed. In April Vice World News revealed Singapore and Indonesia were sentencing drug offenders to death over Zoom calls.

“The UAE promotes itself as a glamorous ‘party place’ to foreigners with marketing designed to lure over investors, skilled labour and tourists,” said Radha Stirling, chief executive of Detained in Dubai who is helping Hood and his family. “Celebrities are paid to market the country, ultimately masking the truth for money. Dubai police’s handling of drug cases has resulted in numerous unfair detentions of foreign nationals.”

UAE Defies Global Trend Towards Cannabis Liberalization

As the cannabis industry is growing across much of Western Europe and North America, businesses would be wise to familiarise themselves with the UAE framework to avoid any unintended consequences as seen in the recent case of Billy Hood (see here). The UAE maintains a strict zero tolerance policy on the use of cannabis as further explained below.

UAE Framework:

  • Federal Decree-Law No. 30/2021 On Combating Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances (the “Law“).

The Law prohibits the procurement, import, export, manufacture, extraction, separation, production, possession, acquisition and abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Cannabis is specifically mentioned and its definition includes cannabis-derived products (including but not limited to hemp, hemp seeds, and THC and CBD-related products).

Medical Use:

The Law does allow for the use of cannabis for medical purposes strictly and as long as it is prescribed by a licensed physician in the UAE. Clinical trials can also be conducted, however only controlled medical applications of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances may be administered for scientific research and this must approved by the Ministry of Health and Prevention. The private and public sector are prevented from growing, manufacturing and selling cannabis products for recreational purposes but it may be imported for medicinal purposes. Under the Law, cannabis products may be imported into the UAE but this will require a written permit signed by the director of the importing company and in the format prescribed by the relevant UAE competent authority.

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As a result, the feasibility of marketing even medical cannabis in the UAE is currently very low.

Hemp products

At the moment, there is no distinction between cannabis and hemp. However, there is an exemption for hemp seed oil (not hemp seeds), as hemp seed oil is permitted for use in the UAE. The Dubai Municipality confirmed in a news article published in January 2019 that the sale and purchase of hemp seed oil is legal, and hemp seed oil can be found in cosmetics and health care products sold in the UAE. The extraction process used for hemp seed oil (similar to olives and coconuts) means that it does not have narcotic properties and as such its use is permitted.

Penalties under the Law

The Law provides for the following penalties:

  • If found in possession of cannabis, a first time offender may be to sentenced to imprisonment between three months and up to one year and given a fine of an amount between AED 20,000 (approx. USD 5,400) and AED 100,000 (approx. USD 27,000). The UAE courts have the discretion to exchange punishment for first-time offenders with treatment in specialized rehabilitation units to be established across the UAE under the Law.
  • Repeat offenders will have increased punishments ranging from 6 months to 2 years imprisonment and fines between AED 30,000 (approx. USD 8,000) to AED 100,000.
  • If found to be selling or distributing cannabis in the UAE, a penalty of imprisonment for a period of not less than 10 years and not more than 15 years will be imposed on offenders and the individual will also face a fine of not less than AED 100,000. For repeat offenders the penalty will be increased to life imprisonment (25 years) and another fine of AED 100,000.
  • For causing harm to another, the penalty is imprisonment for no less than 7 years and a fine of no less than AED 100,000. In the case of serious harm, imprisonment is no less than 10 years and a fine of no less than AED 200,000 may be imposed.
  • Any non-UAE national found guilty of the aforesaid crimes will likely be deported after serving the prison sentence.
  • Under the Law, drug trafficking or causing the death of the victim through drugs is punishable by an imprisonment of 25 years or in extremely rare cases by death (usually executed by firing squad). In February 2020 four men were sentenced to death for smuggling heroin into the UAE (see here).
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In looking towards the future, it is clear that the UAE will still maintain a strict policy on cannabis as evidenced by the imprisonment of the British football coach Billy Hood (see our blog post on this case). Furthermore, the marketing of cannabis for medicinal products will still be of limited value in light of the current framework. For further information please contact Laya Aoun of our Dubai office.

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