UK cannabis laws have been changing gradually over time and prompting the question; how close is the UK to legalizing cannabis?
As at now, cannabis in the UK for the purposes of recreation is still illegal and hence classified under class B. Several attempts have been made to legalize it, or at least make penalties for its use less severe. In 2004, cannabis was shifted to a Class C drug, but this was later reversed in 2009. In November 2018 though, Medical use of cannabis under a registered specialist doctor was made legal.
Despite its illegality, cannabis is still widely used as a drug in the UK. It is of note that hemp has been used for thousands of years for its seeds, oil and fiber. In 1928, laws were passed to restrict cannabis as a drug. Until the 1960’s its use as a recreational drug was limited. It is not until 1971 that stricter measures were put in place due to its increasing popularity. An interesting fact is that the United Kingdom is still exports the most hemp (cannabis with low THC) globally.
History of Cannabis in the UK
The initial evidence of cannabis in Britain was seeds found in a well in York. A 10th Century Viking settlement in Micklegate also appears to have used cannabis, from the seeds found there as well.
Hemp as an agricultural product was made popular by the use of its fiber around coastal areas to make cordage, fishing nets, ropes and canvas. Initially, stinging nettle and flax were used but they did not have the durability that the vegetable fiber found in hemp provided.
At the around the 15th Century, its great success in making ropes for the English navy prompted King Henry VIII to mandate all land owners to grow allotments. Elizabeth I later took it further by increasing both the allotment sizes and penalties for non-adherence. Hemp was now an English staple.
As the farming of hemp became more widespread, and the fiber more abundant, people began to find more uses for it. The demand for fiber grew by leaps and bounds and was one of the factors in Britain’s thriving economy. So great was this demand that Britain moved to acquire new land for hemp farming through means such as colonization.
The hemp economy became a self-sustaining one because as more hemp was grown in the new colonies, more of it was needed to make rope and sail cloth for its numerous ships used to both maintain the colonies and transport the hemp back.
Cannabis Prohibition in the UK
When the agricultural hemp used to make clothes, ropes and other products also started being used for intoxication is quite unclear, although there seems to be an Asian influence to this end.
The prohibition of cannabis started first in the British colonies rather than in Britain itself. In British India, efforts to decriminalize it were made and mooted severally in 1838, 1871 and 1877. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission ruled that the society was caused “little injury” by the use of cannabis.
In Mauritius, another British colony, Cannabis was banned in 1840. Other British colonies who ended up banning cannabis were Singapore who banned it 1870, Jamaica followed suit in 1913, and then in 1914 it was declared illegal in The East Africa Protectorate followed in 1920 by Sierra Leone and finally South Africa in1922, who not only banned it but appealed for its inclusion in the list of banned substances by the United League of Nations in its next convention.
Britain itself was the last to catch on but in 1928, in accordance with its 1925 International Opium Convention, it was finally added to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 as an addendum. The use of cannabis became associated in the British public’s eye in the interwar and years beyond with society’s margins, especially Negro theatrical performers who frequented East End clubs.
This perception was shattered by a raid in 1950 of Club Eleven in Soho which resulted in the recovery of not only cannabis but also cocaine, which led to the arrest of a number of young, white British men. This trend continued with the global change of youth and drug cultures, with arrests increasing dramatically to 4,683 by the end of the century from a paltry 235 in 1960 mainly involving youth of the white middle class without prior convictions. Marijuana possession convictions had reached 11,111 annually by 1973.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 saw cannabis listed as a Class B drug. Apart from the periods in 2004 and 2009 when it was temporarily moved to class C, it has remained classified as Class B. punishment category.
Industrial cannabis in the UK
The Home Office has been granting licenses for the farming and processing of industrial cannabis since 1993. The government of UK even goes a step further to give support service and advice on its growing and processing for fiber. If one is interested in this trade, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will provide both help and advice on how to obtain financial assistance through the Single Payment Scheme. The Rural Development Programme for England provides further funding in England.
The cannabis seed is known for its great nutritional value and it is usually used by British sport fishermen. As an animal feed, it is enjoyed by fowl, Mice and rats and fowl. It is also favored among some British pigeon fancies as food for their fare. In fact, the Linnet is so fond of the cannabis seed that it earned the name cannabina. Though the cannabis seed is too expensive to use as feed every single day, the seed cake gotten after the extraction of oil can be a more affordable option and is still very nutritious.
The use as hemp for fodder is not practical because not only does it make the animals sick but they will also not eat it due to its unpleasant smell unless they practically do not have a choice.
A more practical use is the soft core left after the removal of the fiber which makes for great animal bedding which is both comfortable and absorbs more moisture than the traditionally used wood shavings or straw.
Recreational Cannabis in the UK
As we have discussed earlier, it is illegal to grow, possess, sell or distribute Cannabis in the UK. As a Class B drug, it attracts stiff penalties for unlicensed production, unlicensed dealing or unlicensed trafficking that can go up to 14 years imprisonment, an unspecified fine, or both.
If caught in the possession of marijuana, you face up to 5 years in prison or an unlimited fine. If the amounts of cannabis are really small, a “Cannabis warning” can be issued if it was meant for one’s personal use. That small amount is generally less than 1 ounce. To this end, the police keep unofficial records which neither carry a fine nor pop up on a standard DBS Check.
Medical Cannabis in the UK
On November 1 2018, the UK legalized the Medical use of cannabis after the public’s attention was caught by two epileptic children who benefited from its use.
The children (Alfie Dingley, 6, Billy Caldwell, 12,) both realized significant improvement to their conditions with the use of cannabis. However, the illegal status under the UK law made it impossible for them to continue their treatment. A public outcry ensued especially in Billy Caldwell’s Case.
20 June 2018 saw the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announce his backing of the medical use of cannabis. He also announced the undertaking of a review to study its changes into law. Home Secretary Sajid Javid on 26 July 2018 announced that patients with “exceptional clinical need” would be legally allowed to access medical cannabis for their specific conditions.
He also announced that its classification would be moved to Schedule 2 from Schedule 1. The new amendments were formally presented and accepted to the House and on 1 November 2018, it came into effect One can obtain a license from the home office the importation of prescribed medicinal cannabis.
Saphirre medical opened the first autonomous CQC registered clinic for cannabis in December 2019. A number of other private clinics have since opened all across the UK. An estimate suggests that 204 unlicensed medical cannabis prescriptions have been issued in the period between October 2018 and mid-2019.
The law specifies that GPs should not under any circumstances propose cannabis-derived medicines. A specialist consultant has to initiate the treatment and then maybe a GP or shared care professional can continue the treatment. It is stated in the NHS guidelines that only in cases where all other treatments have been exhausted and that clear, published evidence of its benefit exist, should medical cannabis be prescribed.
Some examples of these cannabis derived medicines are:
Nabilone, another cannabinoid medicine has the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approval. It is however important to note that it is not naturally derived from the plant but is a synthetic form of THC. Nabilone is useful in the treatment of vomiting and nausea brought about by cytotoxic chemotherapy.
In the UK, it is legal to use and sell Cannabidiol (CBD) oil without a prescription. The caveat here is that it shouldn’t be sold as medicine and that its THC level is less than 0.01%. Some confusion occurs because it is legal to grow cannabis of up to 0.2% THC, but the level allowed for sale of products including CBD oil is 0.015. This confusion has led to the closure of many businesses. In EU, The CBD drug Epidiolex has been apsproved for treatment of intractable childhood seizures.
Will Cannabis be Legalized in the UK?
There however seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.
1. Young Voter Appeal
While appealing to young voters, this shift would not appeal to the traditional conservative supporters. Dominic Cummings has become adept at tailoring messages to these differing groups. What is clear is that younger people support health-oriented responses to drugs better than the older generation whose priority is criminal justice as they consider themselves to be politically conservative.
Some concerns that arise in the legalization of cannabis are the expansion of drug dealing activities from urban to rural areas as well as well as the growing attracting modern day slavery and exploitation of trafficked workers. While the headlines might be highly sensationalized, ministers need to see these as concerns the public care about.
While new modern slavery powers are now in place to tackle the trafficking of both domestic and international vulnerable people in the trade of drugs, legally regulating the domestic cannabis market will disrupt both the gangs and traffickers while at the same time undermining their operations.
The strategy that should be adopted is one that allows for adult recreational indulgence of cannabis while protecting the health of the vulnerable at the same time. At the same time this should be backed by strongly prohibiting other types of drug abuse in order to bridge the generational divide.
2. Mental Health Benefits of Cannabis
The benefits of cannabis in mental health cannot be ignored. In the same vein, the conservatives have made a promise to give the same weight to mental health that they give to physical health. With measures in place that would both limit the amount of THC and the exposure to contaminants and pesticides that consumers might be exposed to when using cannabis products, some form of regulation can be agreed upon.
3. Potential Tax Revenues from Cannabis Sales in the UK
The potential of the cannabis industry to raise revenue is from the legal cannabis industry is huge. Some states in the US that have legalized Cannabis have been able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Some of this tax revenue is pledged for the funding of specialised treatment. The government should however be careful to not over project these earnings and at the same time, ensure that the collections meant for specialised treatment doesn’t find its way to treasury.
That wraps up our summary of the UK marijuana laws; feel free to write to us and let us know your feeling in regards to the UK legalizing cannab