Our galaxy will seem a lot smaller in the near future as space tourism emerges as a new sector in the travel industry. But as companies begin booking passengers for extra-terrestrial flights, they will also have to sort out what you can and can't legally do in outer space - whether that involves mining gold from an asteroid or smoking a joint on the moon.
That's where experts like Frans von der Dunk come in. Von der Dunk is a professor of space law (yes, that's a thing) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Recently, he published an article to settle an age-old space question: Who owns the moon? Turns out, nobody actually does. Even though Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the surface of the moon 50 years ago, the US agreed that its lunar mission was not about colonization but exploration. That understanding became enshrined in international law through the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which states that "the moon and other celestial bodies such as asteroids belong in the same basket, legally speaking. None of them can become the 'territory' of one sovereign state or another," according to Dr. Von der Dunk.
So if the moon doesn't belong to any country, then people visiting the moon aren't beholden to any laws, right? Not exactly. Going into space doesn't free a person from being held accountable for their actions once they're back on earth. In many ways, it's up to individual countries to determine what their citizens can and can't do on earth as well as up in the stars.
"The most fundamental piece of space law is the absence of territorial sovereignty in space, which translates space into a public commons. States are free to do what they want in outer space unless there is a rule that prevents that," Dr. Von der Dunk told Civilized. "It is then up to individual states to determine to what extent their own people are free to enjoy that freedom. So, if the US wants to allow private companies to mine the moon, they are free to do so, but they can be held responsible and liable by the international community."
To hold countries responsible, laws concerning the moon and space in general have been negotiated through the United Nations via international treaties. But those treaties are notoriously difficult for the UN to enforce. So if a country decides to take people up to the moon and let them have a smoke sesh among the stars, there isn't much the UN can do to stop it.
"Nobody has the ability to proscribe international law and police people who violate them," Von der Dunk explained. "There is no real world court where you can call those states to order. The UN is no more than a platform for the states to get together and be nudged toward some treaties because they are good for national and international security, peace, et cetera, but the sovereignty of states still remains supreme. So the violation of space law becomes a political issue, similar to punishing Russia over Ukraine. The only way to force countries to comply is by way of sanctions, boycotts and other political ramifications."
So the UN can't outright stop a country from letting people enjoy an interstellar smoke sesh, but member states can band together to make life difficult for any country that allows cannabis on the moon. And since the vast majority of UN members have signed international treaties designed to ban cannabis use around the world, it wouldn't be surprising if those countries tried to impose prohibition on outer space as well.
But until a situation like that comes to pass, the legality of smoking up on the moon largely depends on the origin of the spacecraft that brought you up there, according to. Dr. Von der Dunk, who says that spacecraft and all the passengers on it are subject to the laws of the country that registered the ship.
"Space isn’t part of any country, but there is a concept…that allows states to exercise control over registered spaceships, which almost qualify as a floating territory of the flag state," he explained. "If cannabis is allowed in the US, then it would be quite likely be allowed on US registered spacecraft. In contrast, the opposite would be true if cannabis were still prohibited in the flag state."
However, the nationality of the astro-tourists doesn't matter. It's the registration of the spacecraft itself that makes the difference.
"If I, as a Dutchman, would like to go into outer space and smoke cannabis there, it depends on the registration of the spacecraft I am flying on, I need to comply with the laws of that country. If it were a Saudi Space, I could not consume alcohol - even though I am a Dutchman - because of the Saudi prohibition of alcohol."
So, in theory, a group of astronauts flying in a Canadian spaceship could bring cannabis along for the expedition and even smoke it on the moon because Canada legalized marijuana last fall.
And we could see the first space tourism flight take off in the near future.
"Maybe this year, if nothing bad happens, the first space tourism flight might go off," Dr. Von der Dunk told Civilized. "If not this year, then next year or in a few years."