Cannabis Laws & Culture In The United Kingdom

by Taylor Engle

Human cannabis use dates back well into the B.C. years, so it should come as no surprise that almost every region in the world has its own version of cannabis history. The United Kingdom has a history with cannabis that dates back to the 10th century, when the hemp market was a crucial part of the economy. However, legalized cannabis has yet to be a reality for the island nation — read on to learn more about UK cannabis laws.

UK Cannabis Laws

Recreational cannabis is completely illegal in the UK. Listed as a Class B Drug (alongside methamphetamine, ketamine, and mephedrone), the possession of cannabis is treated as a serious offense and can land you behind bars for years.

Although cannabis has become the most popular illegal drug in the region, it is completely illegal to smoke cannabis in the UK, both in public and in your home. If you are caught with cannabis on your person, you can receive up to five years in prison, an “unlimited fine” (termed in UK courts as having no limit to the size of fine a judge is allowed to impose), or both. If you are caught growing and/or supplying the Class B plant, you can receive up to 14 years in prison, and an unlimited fine, or both. 

Recently, UK police forces have softened up a bit, which is not to say much. If you are caught with less than an ounce on your person, it is deemed “personal use” and they will simply issue a warning in the form of a spot fine, usually around 60 British pounds. However, some police officers have taken a decriminalized stance on the plant. In 2015, the Durham Police in the northeast region of England announced they would stop prosecuting cannabis users and small-scale growers, focusing those energies and resources instead on gangs and organized crime.

While the laws for recreational cannabis remain incredibly stringent, forms of medical marijuana are legal in the UK, either over-the-counter or by prescription. This was voted on by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in October 2018, and doctors were given approval to begin prescribing the plant as of November 1, 2018. 

These regulations apply to England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Mike Barnes, professor and medical cannabis expert, was the first person to secure a medical cannabis license for his patient Alfie Dingely, a child suffering from epilepsy. This medical innovation encouraged other doctors to embrace cannabis and its healing properties. But despite these realizations, the medical cannabis process is highly monitored and regulated, and it is difficult to acquire a prescription. 

Although smoking is the most common way to ingest cannabis, the UK only allows medical cannabis in forms of oil or pill. Cannabis oil or CBD oil is widely available in pharmacies throughout the UK, but it is not permitted to contain more than 0.05 percent of THC, the famous cannabinoid that provides the user with the familiarly psychoactive element of the cannabis experience.

The only reason that medical cannabis is an option to UK residents is because of the cases of the aforementioned Alfie and Billy Caldwell, two epilectic children who experienced an improved quality of life after using CBD oil to treat their conditions. Both families were forced to seek treatment outside of the UK, and public outcry over this was enough to alter the law. 

Industrial hemp is the only other form of cannabis that is fully legal in the UK, but a license from the Home Office, the ministerial department of the UK government responsible for immigration, security, law and order, is required in order for farmers to cultivate hemp. Even so, farmers can only legally cultivate seeds and stems — the flowers and leaves are considered cannabis without exemption and are therefore illegal. 

History Of UK Cannabis Culture In The UK

The idea of industrial hemp is not new to the United Kingdom — the hemp industry has been a staple in the UK economy for several centuries.

During the 18th century, the plant was gaining popularity in the medical communities. Even Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis by her doctor as a means to regulate painful menstrual cramps. And as Britain expanded its territories throughout the 19th century, it became evident that regions like India and Southern Africa used cannabis recreationally and regularly. 

However, by the time the early 20th century rolled around, anti-cannabis propaganda began presenting the plant as a dangerous, addictive drug similar to opium. This eventually raised concern throughout the UK and resulted in cannabis being officially prohibited in 1928 (the plant was added to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 as an addendum). It was then listed as a Class B Drug in 1971 under the Misuse of Drugs Act. From then on, cannabis remained illegal throughout the UK.

Despite the stigma that continues to surround cannabis in the UK, it also continues to become increasingly normalized in everyday culture. A 2020 survey commissioned by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) suggested that 1.4 million people in the region are regularly using illegal cannabis, for both recreational and medicinal purposes. The CMC used the results to call on the government, demanding an urgent review of the current medical cannabis policies. 

While cannabis remains illegal and limited throughout the UK, many citizens are forced to turn to street dealers to fulfill their cannabis needs. However, recent years have seen a rise in online cannabis sales. The most popular cannabis source is the “Dark Web” or “Dark Net,” the section of the Internet that is invisible to search engines and requires specific software to access. This route also requires the purchase of Bitcoin, which can then be used to purchase illicit cannabis. 

As cannabis continues to increase in popularity throughout the UK, the government may be forced to take another look at their restrictions and eventually consider making some alterations. Medical cannabis continues to be recognized as a viable alternative to prescription drugs and medicine. As Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell remind us, as well as their counterpart Charlotte Figi in the United States, powerful stories that show the true potential of cannabis can change the legal landscape for millions of people. 

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