Cannabis regulation is changing all over the world, with a general lean toward a more liberal approach. Uruguay was the first country to legalize, followed by Canada, some US states, Georgia, Malta, Switzerland and Germany; though actual policies have not been released in the EU countries. And now joining in, is the entire continent of Antarctica, which recently added an addendum to its policy to clarify that recreational cannabis is legal.
A little on Antarctica
If you like the cold, Antarctica might be for you. Antarctica is the 5th largest continent, as well as the most southern land mass, as it covers the South Pole region of the planet. It has the designations of having the highest above sea level altitude, the least rain, the most wind, and the coldest climate. Ice sheaths cover about 98% of the land, which stretches for approximately 5.5 million square miles (or 14.2 million square km). The temperature gets as high as 5º C (41º F) in some parts, and as low as around -90º C (-130º F).
The continent is split into sides called East Antarctica and West Antarctica, which are separated by the Antarctic Peninsula. The East side is mainly a plateau covered by ice. And the West side is comprised of mountainous islands which are covered by a sheet of ice. The sides lie – for the most part – within their corresponding east and west longitudes.
Though we usually think of deserts as being hot and sandy, Antarctica shows us that the temperature isn’t related to the amount of precipitation. It’s a desert continent, which gets approximately two inches of precipitation a year (America averages at 30 inches). More life exists in the areas that do get some amount of precipitation. In fact, Antarctica has over 1,000 identified species which call it home, though the vast majority are microorganisms. On the coasts and islands there are more; and this area is inhabited by penguins, orcas, and other cold-loving animals.
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The seas around the continent were once rich with whalers and sealers in the late 18th century, though that died out for the most part. Commercial fishing is big in the area now, which started in the 1960’s. More recently, its scientists who inhabit this cold continent; though it’s surprisingly become a tourist destination as well. According to a New York Times article, between 2018-2019, the continent had over 56,000 visitors. Written in 2020, it was already estimated that that year would have closer to 78,500. It should be noted that ships with over 500 people are not allowed to go to land, and can only jaunt around the sea area.
In 1959, the 12 countries using the continent most for research purposes, signed a treaty known as the Antarctic Treaty, which negates the ability for militaries to use the land. It specifies the land is only to be used for non-military research purposes. The treaty placed Antarctica under an international rulership for however long it lasts, with a stipulation for reevaluation every 30 years.
This was followed by a 1991 treaty called the Madrid Protocol; which bans mining, makes the continent a national reserve, and which requires environmental assessments for new activities. These treaties also set the regulations for tourism; including passenger limitations for reaching shore, how many staff are required, and how experienced a crew must be.
Who lives on Antarctica
While its quite true that there are no standard populations on Antarctica (aside from penguins, and the like), there are certainly plenty of people heading in and out, mainly of the research variety. It’s not a place where people live permanently, but it is expanding in terms of how many researchers inhabit the place at one time; and how many tourists venture over.
According to a Cool Antarctica article, there are 66 scientific base sites, 37 of which have researchers in them year round, while the rest close down for the colder part of the year. Some have around 50 researchers during the summer, and 15-20, or even less, in the winter. A US run research facility at McMurdo Sound, has 1,000 people or more at some points, making it the most inhabited base, and which functions like a small town. Overall, there are generally about 4,000 people in the summer months, and closer to 1,000 in the winter, across the continent.
There are two communities of civilian workers outside of the McMurdo base, which also operate like small towns. One is the Villa Las Estrellas base, a Chilean research outpost that has over 100 people in the summers and around 80 in the winter. The other is Esperanza, an Argentinian base which goes down to about 55 residents in the winter. All three of these bigger bases offer standard ‘town’ structures, like a gym, school, and medical facilities. They are also gaining a foothold in the tourism industry, for both those who come by ship or air.
Getting to Antarctica isn’t terribly easy, whether a tourist or scientist. The Antarctic Treaty requires a person get permission from their home country in order to get to the continent. You have to specify exactly what you want to do there, how you’ll support yourself (you must be 100% self-sufficient), if you’ll have an environmental impact, and exactly what every step of your plan is. Not everyone’s request to go gets accepted.
Antarctica now has legal recreational cannabis
With a growing research and tourist population, its not surprising that Antarctica is in on the weed game too. After all, conditions can be cold, and nearly unmanageable at times, and those who choose to work there often have a difficult time. It’s not shocking that the idea came up for legal recreational cannabis on the continent, given these conditions.
Said one US researcher, Lain Evans, who works with the private company Water Stream Line, “I’m surprised it took this long, we’ve been trying to make it legal to bring here and use for years. I mean, this place is difficult, and we really rely on being able to smoke the good stuff.” Water Stream Line is a company that investigates how to irrigate water more efficiently from under ice caps.
This was backed up by Argentinian biologist Mario Hernandez, who lives in Esperanza, and works with a team to investigate a newly found microorganism that is able to lie dormant through the coldest months. As per his translator, “People greatly underestimate the difficulty of such a living situation. We choose to be here, but the conditions…well, they can be your worst nightmare sometimes. Having something to take the edge off is important.”
The whole thing started two years ago with an adventure tourist from Wales. After his most recent trip, Guy Crayson explained that the cold and unrelenting conditions were a thrill for him, but that “I don’t know how well I could do it if I couldn’t sneak a joint in.” Crayson was the target of a lawsuit that brought the matter up, when he was arrested when trying to bring cannabis for a fourth trip. “I get it” said Crayson, “and honestly, my lawyers handled it pretty fast, but it really put the idea in my head that something has to change.”
All three men, (Evans, Hernandez, and Crayson) were part of an initiative called the Antarctica Cannabis Addendum which challenged the Antarctica Treaty’s lack of specific legislation for drugs in general. Said Hernandez, “I expect it never came up, no one thought of it. There were just a few guys at first, so no one was thinking that it was important to make a law about it.”
Explained Crayson further, “It wasn’t about making a change, not really. It was more about shining a light on the lack of laws in place. We kind of knew that if we could give a good argument and get some signatures, that we could probably get a clarification. And we did.”
Along with these three men, Dutch scientist Hans Preakerson, helped collect signatures from different research bases, to get the regulating body to officially update the treaty to ensure scientists and tourists of any country can enter Antarctica with cannabis. The addendum provides an exception to standard country laws, under a regulation called the ‘Necessity of Life’ provision.
It states, “If and when a person is to be confined to the hostile environment of Antarctica, even on chosen missions or touristic purposes, that individual has the right to bring up to one ounce of cannabis per two month period, for either medical or recreational purposes.” It was officially instated in late 2022.
“As of yet,” said Preakerson, who himself works on developing clothing for extreme cold circumstances, “we haven’t found a good way to grow it. We’re thinking of setting up a green house within our facility, but the energy costs of running it are extreme for our limited capacity. We’re playing around with new growing methods that might help us out in colder temperatures.” He added, “There’s a team coming soon just to work on that, though the application isn’t technically for here, but for other cold and populated regions.”
This story never got a lot of press, likely because the population of Antarctica is tiny and constantly changing. But it does go to show that loopholes, or missing regulation, can be used to essentially change the law in place. In the case of recreational cannabis in Antarctica, this legal clarification means a much more relaxed time, even on the coldest of nights.
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