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A History Of Cannabis Law In The UK
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A History Of Cannabis Law In The UK

Posted: October 28, 2020

Cannabis, a group of three plants (sativa, indica and ruderalis), is a household name and is increasingly known for its active cannabinoid CBD (non psychoactive). Whilst CBD is legal, cannabis itself is in fact still illegal in the UK and it is worth noting that many countries around the world are heading toward legalisation and widespread medical use. Here we take a look into the history of cannabis law in the UK, the current policy on legality and medicinal use and in which direction the law is heading.

What is cannabis?

Most people have heard about the use of cannabinoids such as CBD and CBG (which are legal and gaining more recognition as medicinal and wellbeing supplements) and it is not uncommon to know or hear of recreational cannabis users. Cannabis is an ancient plant known and utilised for millennia. Its uses are in fact remarkable and diverse as cannabis can be used as a sustainable replacement for many household products, as well as an organic and homeopathic alternative to Western medicine. Through time cannabis has been used:
  • Recreationally
  • Industrially
  • Shamanically
  • Ritualistically
  • Medicinally
Today it is becoming more widely accepted medicinally and recreationally and many countries across the globe are updating legalisation. So, where does the UK stand, what is its legal status here and what can we see on the horizon?

UK cannabis history timeline

Time Period Law and Usage
BC - 16th Century Not illegal. Used widely and globally for building, medicinally and ritualistically and recreationally.
16th Century - 18th Century Not illegal. Used widely for building and becoming more widely recognised medically. Encouraged/enforced by the Monarchy for industry.
Early 1900s - Today (2020) Illegal. Geneva International Drug Conference claims cannabis is detrimental to society like opium. Declares it illegal under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920, which is where it remains. Cannabis changes from Class B to Class C and back again to Class B between 2004 and 2009.
Today - Onward Currently illegal except in very limited instances, but advancements are being made for the use of medical marijuana and prospects for legalisation in the future are possible if the UK follows suit with countries such as Canada and the USA.

History of cannabis law in the UK

16th Century

The first stop on our journey back in time takes us to the 16th century, which is when cannabis cultivation reached its peak in Britain. The main reason for UK cannabis growth was the ever growing requirement for building materials; for the most part, this was for building and maintaining ships. Henry VIII made it law that farmers were to grow cannabis and Elizabeth I further increased the compulsory amount that farmers were obliged to grow. Our cannabis requirements far exceeded the farming space we had for growing it, which is a factor that sparked the British desire to colonise across the globe.

18th Century

In the 18th Century (no doubt that cannabis had remained a staple until then), Queen Victoria was being prescribed cannabis by her doctor to relieve pain. At this time cannabis was gaining a good reputation in the medical world, something that is being rediscovered in today's world of opiates and pharmaceuticals . Today we can read about the benefits that cannabis products provide to us and the pain relieving qualities within the compounds found in cannabis plants.

Early 1900s

It was in the early 1900s that the view on cannabis took a dramatic turn in the UK when Geneva hosted an international drug conference in 1928. It was here that Britain was told that cannabis, like opium, was a dangerous threat to society. It is believed that due to this, much valuable time has been lost into the investigation of the use of marijuana as medicine. However, this was not enough to stop the wide use of cannabis recreationally. The influx of Carribean immigrants saw recreational usage rise in popularity, which carried us into the 60s; a time of huge political and social change and a boom of counterculture.

Dangerous Drugs Act 1920

Recreational use of cannabis has been illegal in the UK since 1928 under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920, which may seem a little outdated in modern times. Let us take into account that countries such as Canada and many states in the USA have legalised cannabis and made huge advancements in research into the vast uses of medical marijuana. Furthermore, cannabis has been legalised in 19 places (inclusive of territories and states worldwide) and more than 30 countries have decriminalised the use of cannabis and have little or no punishment for personal possession or use.

Class B, Class C, Class B

In 1971 cannabis was classified as a Class B drug (drugs that share this category are ketamine, speed, mephedrone and amphetamines). This was dropped to Class C between 2004-2009 (Class C drugs are perceived to be less dangerous and carry fewer or less severe penalties). Since 2009 cannabis has been reinstated as a Class B drug in Britain and this is how it currently stands. Today, The Home Office is still granting license to certain businesses’ for the cultivation of cannabis for fibre (hemp), but for the public in the UK it is illegal.

What about medical marijuana?

Although in the UK cannabis sits in the eyes of the law alongside dangerous drugs like speed, ketamine and amphetamines, there has been progress in the recognition of its benefits as a medicine for the treatment of certain illnesses or diseases. A few stand-out cases are those of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingely who both suffered life threatening conditions before their use of cannabis. By taking CBD oil these boys reportedly experienced fewer seizures and a better quality of life. These are just some of the headliner news stories in recent years. The public have fought and continue to fight for the use of cannabis as a medicine for treating various conditions and diseases, and the well-known cases of Billy and Alfie sparked changes in our government. In 2018 Jeremy Hunt (then the Health Secretary) backed the use of medical marijuana, which led to a statement from the Home Secretary to say that “cannabis based products would be made available to those with exceptional clinical need”. There are cannabinoid based drugs (some that contain synthesised cannabinoids) that are used frequently today. There is evidence to suggest that cannabinoids work best when organically complete. A cannabis product that contains multiple cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids causes something called the “entourage effect”. This means that all of the active ingredients work together synergistically to provide maximum benefit to us. If you would like to learn more of the benefits of cannabinoids like CBD, we have a number of guides on our blog.

What is the current law on cannabis in the UK (2020)?

Although today cannabis is available by special prescription for those with specific conditions, it is still very much illegal and is a Class B drug. It is still possible to receive a prison sentence and an unlimited fine for possession, and it is illegal to germinate cannabis seeds, although you can collect them or use them as fishing bait.

What’s next for cannabis law in the UK?

The use of cannabis based products is on the rise and CBD products are widely available, have proven results and are gaining traction as awareness is publicised. Although compounds found within cannabis like CBD are deemed safe and legal in the eyes of the law cannabis itself (containing THC - the dominantly psychoactive compound) shows no sign of being legalised. However as time progresses the UK may follow the US and other countries into wider acceptance and legalisation in regards to the use of cannabis medicinally and recreationally.

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