Changes to the UAE's drug laws will limit criminal action against people found to be carrying products which contain cannabis extracts.
Items with traces of the drug – such as the THC compound – will instead be seized and destroyed, with no punishment for first-time possession.
Those caught with such items again, however, could face prosecution.
Some medical items and foods, such as hemp-based products, can carry extremely low levels of THC, which is the main stimulative compound in cannabis.
New amendments to UAE legislation, to come into force in January, have removed the prospect of many people inadvertently falling foul of the law.
But those in possession of e-cigarettes filled with cannabis extract will continue to face criminal charges.
“Not only legal professionals but doctors, psychiatrists, social experts and others came together to revise the law and produce one that prioritises rehabilitation and the welfare of society,” said Ali Galadari, senior judge at the Dubai Court of Cassation.
Consuming drugs is a crime and the revised law does not change this rule. Therefore, people found in possession of substances such as CBD oil in e-cigarettes will be charged, he said.
“Carrying vape cigarettes that are filled with CBD oil is different from carrying food or drink or medicine that contain THC,' the judge said.
“Smokers are very aware of what their cigarettes contain, so they should be able to know if it's CBD oil and not think that the revised law will spare them penalty.
“If in doubt about the ingredients of their vaping juice, they should simply buy them from licensed shops.”
What has changed?
Previously, people carrying products that include traces of cannabis would have been detained and referred to prosecutors on charges of drug importation or possessing.
A criminal case would have followed and a conviction meant a prison sentence of up to 10 years and deportation for expatriates.
After major legal changes in November, such items found on people arriving in the country will instead be confiscated and destroyed.
Article 96 states it “shall not be considered punishable by law an action of bringing in, importing, transmitting, or possessing food, drinks or other products which ingredients contain drugging or mind-altering substances mentioned in parts of tables 1, 4, 5 and 6 of this law”.
These listed substances include cannabis, cannabis resin and extracts and tinctures of cannabis, morning glory, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Dronabinol, Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and its stereochemical variants.
“This change, among other changes to the country’s drug law, addressed a debate we often had as judges which is whether a drug user is a criminal, or a patient,” Mr Galadari said.
“This has been addressed and the law clearly prioritises rehabilitation and what is best for the defendants themselves and for the country and the society.”
A first-time offence will not be regarded as a crime of possessing drugs for personal use.
However, an official report must document the incident and the substances confiscated must be referred to the relevant authorities to handle the process of destroying them.
“I saw many people get charged with bringing in products that contain THC that are allowed in their countries, but they had no idea it was not allowed in the UAE,” said Ayham Al Moghrabi, a legal consultant.
“However, people carrying products whose ingredients may be questionable need to read the tables attached to the drug law – which are widely available online – because carrying other substances in any form is still punishable.”
Other significant changes to UAE’s anti-narcotics law include cutting minimum jail terms and setting up specialist detention centres as an alternative to prison.
These will provide treatment and rehabilitation programmes, sports and vocational training, as well as family, occupational and social integration initiatives.
“I assume these centres will, very soon – within this year – be ready, especially as the country now has extensive experience in this issue,” Mr Galadari said.
Deportation for foreigners in drug cases is no longer mandatory, with judges able to decide if someone convicted is allowed to stay.
“When it comes to when I may consider deportation, I need look at all details, before I decide,” Mr Galadri said.
“For instance, I need to see whether the defendant is a resident, a visitor, a first timer, or if the person has a criminal record, and other details that will help me decide what is best for the person, his family and the community.”