Is Weed Legal In The UK? A Short History And Analysis Of British Laws

Is Weed Legal In The UK? A Short History And Analysis Of British Laws

This article was originally published on 2Fast4Buds and appears here with permission.

Anyone with even a passing interest in cannabis reform cannot ignore the sweeping changes happening right now all over the world. Marijuana is already legal in Canada and 16 US states, and Germany has pledged to fully legalize it before the next election term. No wonder more and more Brits ask the question: is weed legal in UK yet? And the question isn’t as naive as you may think.

Weed isn’t legal in the UK at the moment. Moreover, even the possession of personal amounts isn’t decriminalized, and the national program of medical cannabis has yet to take off. But a sober analysis of the history of cannabis prohibition and the recent tentative changes in British laws shows that the legal status of cannabis may change here in the not too distant future.

CANNABIS HISTORY IN THE UK

Cannabis prohibition is a relatively new phenomenon. For centuries, the cannabis plant was just another crop that was used to make ropes and clothes. In the 19th century, its medicinal properties were recognized and cannabis became a prominent part of Western pharmacopeia.

It was only in the 20th century that Westerners, mostly in the USA, became wildly aware of the recreational use of cannabis, as well as opium and other substances, by poor immigrants. Perceiving it as a new and grave threat, the powers that be started with the prohibition.

The derogatory term “marijuana”, probably of Mexican origin, is a testimony of the rampant xenophobia underlying cannabis prohibition from the start. Anti-cannabis laws first appeared in individual states, then were adopted federally. And the growing influence of the United States on the global stage and the rise of international organizations helped spread the prohibition to other countries, including the UK.

In a similar vein, Great Britain itself encountered the widespread traditional use of cannabis in its colonies, and when the prohibition began, it first affected the colonies and only then the parent state.

It took many decades of “war on drugs” and “zero tolerance” before the idea of a less militant policy was introduced by cannabis advocates and gradually took hold.

THE QUESTION OF LEGALIZATION IN THE 20TH CENTURY

The cannabis laws UK adopted when it signed the relevant international treaties are codified in the 1971 Dangerous Drugs Act. The Act specifies four main classes of illicit substances, and cannabis is in the second most restrictive Class B. This group also includes amphetamines and ketamine.

  Drug Possession Production/Supply
Class B Cannabis, synthetic cannabinoids, ketamine, amphetamines, barbiturates & others Up to 5 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both Up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both

Is marijuana legal in UK? The law says it isn’t.
Interestingly, before this law came into force, doctors could recommend cannabis medicine to their patients although the drug had been illegal for recreational use since 1928. Growing cannabis plants in the UK was prohibited in 1964.

Nothing was happening on the legalization front till the end of the century, except that the public had to open its eyes to the fact that marijuana smoking was spreading more and more widely among white middle-class kids with no prior conviction. With more than 11,000 arrests made annually by 1973, it stopped being a fringe issue.

2000’S – PRESENT DAY

The Labour Party made an attempt to effectively decriminalize the drug by downgrading it to Class C in 2001. The move meant that the penalties for personal possession, use, and production would be minimal, and the sentences for supply (selling or sharing) would be drastically reduced.

This policy was a success as, according to the Home Office, the police saved about 199,000 hours in 2005 alone, focusing instead on real crime. Yet despite a promising beginning, in 2007, the then prime minister Gordon Brown moved cannabis back to Class B where it has remained ever since. While making this hasty decision, Prime Minister ignored what his own Council on the Misuse of Drugs had advised.

MEDICAL USE OF CANNABIS AND MARIJUANA IN THE UK

In 2018, Great Britain grudgingly legalized the medicinal use of the substance. The injustice of prohibiting access to medical marijuana for seriously ill people was highlighted by the case of two children—Billy Caldwell, 12, and Alfie Dingley, 6—who were using cannabis oil with low THC content for severe epilepsy.

After the police interfered and became a target of public outcry, they had to return the medicine to the boys’ parents. The law prohibiting the use of weed for medical purposes thus became indefensible.

Today, the medical cannabis program in the UK is working but is widely criticized because the country still relies 100% on imported weed and experiences constant shortages. It’s also very difficult to get reimbursed for the medicine by NHS, and the number of specialists with a right to prescribe cannabis is ridiculously low. In the UK, you cannot get a prescription from a physician, and no doctor can recommend cannabinoid treatment before you have exhausted all other treatment options. The legalization of the smokable form of cannabis doesn’t seem likely either.

CURRENT LAW ON CANNABIS IN THE UK

On paper, the current law is short of draconian. The simple possession of cannabis with no intent to distribute is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Or you could pay an unlimited fine. Or both. Things get even worse if you are caught dealing. You’ll face up to 14 years in prison plus an unlimited fine. Btw, the word ‘supply’ is an umbrella term that doesn’t include just selling a drug for profit. You can gift your weed or share a joint and still get punished for supply.

Please note that the penalties above are all maximum sentences, and the law doesn’t give clear-cut guidelines as to how the amount of the substance affects the punishment, or what aggravating or mitigating circumstances can affect your sentence. There’s a lot of leeway for the police and the judges.

WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU ARE CAUGHT WITH WEED?

Usually, when the police catch you with less than an ounce of marijuana in the UK and there’s no reason to suspect the intent to sell, you may get away with an on-the-spot warning. Especially, if you have an unblemished record. Or you can be issued a £90 fine but also without any arrest. Btw, even the warning goes on record, but it won’t show in any background checks. And please don’t forget that officers will confiscate the weed they discover.

Reports show that Durham police have made personal consumption of cannabis a low priority for its workforce. This means they will only bother if your marijuana use is ‘blatant’ or there’s been a complaint. Otherwise, they’re instructed not to arrest people younger than 25, and under-18 minors are taken to their parents. The general policy is to deal with the issue in a non-criminal manner and instead divert the offenders to education courses and other community measures.

The experiment in Durham was successful enough for Derbyshire, Dorset, and Surrey to follow suit. Also, there was a plan leaked this year that London’s authorities want to run a pilot program decriminalizing personal use.

Please also be aware of the three-strikes rule applying to cannabis offenders. The first time you get caught, there’s nothing more serious than a warning for you. The second time, it’s a fine with three weeks to pay it if you want to avoid further action. The third-time offenders may get arrested and charged, though convictions are rare — no more than one-fourth of all people being charged.

CHANCES OF THE UK LEGALIZING CANNABIS

Despite everything that is happening globally, the laws surrounding smoking weed in the UK aren’t a topic of mainstream discussion yet.

There’s a growing realization that something needs to be done about the medical cannabis program that doesn’t seem to work four years after marijuana-based products were allowed for treatment. The conversation around recreational use so far only hints at the possibility of decriminalization, but no political party has pledged to fully legalize the drug.

THE DEBATE AROUND CANNABIS REFORM

If you’re asking yourself the question: "Is marijuana legal in UK?” and looking to your government for an answer, don’t hold your breath just yet. Last year, the Prime Minister’s press secretary said that Boris Johnson thought cannabis was a harmful substance and drug use destroyed lives and that he had no plans whatsoever of legalizing cannabis.

Cannabis, in fact, wasn’t mentioned in the ruling party’s latest manifesto. The official stance is to continue with the implementation of the 1971 Drug Misuse Act. The opponents of the legalization movement often cite the increased risk of psychosis among those who smoke cannabis.

Interestingly, in the period between 2001 and 2007 when the substance was downgraded from Class B to the less restrictive Class C, the number of emergency room visits due to cannabis-related psychosis saw a significant drop. One possible explanation is that stricter regulation leads to the consumption of more potent forms of marijuana purchased on the black market and that they may be more harmful to the user. In Great Britain, these super potent weed strains are often referred to as “skunk”.

But it would be a mistake to think that all Tories are happy with the current drug policy. The unpopularity of anti-cannabis laws increases even among Conservative MPs, and 79 percent of MPs from all parties think they should be updated, according to a 2021 poll.

The Labour Party supports improved access to CBD-derived products and medical cannabis in general but sends a mixed message regarding the decriminalization of adult use. Sir Kier Starmer, Labour leader, is against discarding the Drug Misuse Act, but his party has spoken in favor of the decriminalization experiment in Scotland. In short, Labour seems to favor the laissez-faire approach: to stop prosecuting those caught with a small quantity of marijuana without actually changing the law.

Other opposition parties call for a more science-based approach to the drug policy with a harm-reduction angle, but none advocates full legalization. Only the Greens are a bit more radical with their proposal to create cannabis social clubs where members can grow and supply weed to each other.

STATISTICS

The following facts underscore the need for further debate on the topic of cannabis legalization:

  • 8 percent of adults in the UK use cannabis
  • the size of the black market is £2bln annually
  • 48% support marijuana legalization
  • it could generate £3.5 billion worth of taxes

Public opinion polls show that British policy-makers trail behind the wishes of their constituents regarding cannabis reform. It’s all the more surprising considering that their hard-fist approach has failed to curb the use of illicit substances.

Cannabis became the most-used drug in the country in 1995, and 8 percent of adults aged 16 to 59 self-reported marijuana use in March 2020. Obviously, all of them rely on the illegal market and spend around £2 billion annually.

The push to legalize the substance now cites not only harm-reduction and the need to protect the poorest over-policed communities from the injustice of the war on drugs. Economic incentives also play an ever-larger role in the debate. According to independent estimates, a nationwide legal cannabis market in the UK can fill the Treasury’s coffers with £3.5 billion worth of revenues.

In 2019, the United Kingdom reached a watershed moment: for the first time ever, the number of people in favor of cannabis legalization was twice as big as those opposing it — 48 percent against 24. With reforms elsewhere in the world creating a push to reform cannabis laws in the UK, the share of proponents is likely to reach the majority in the foreseeable future.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It seems that Great Britain isn’t yet ready to dramatically change its stance on cannabis, and authorities are bent on continuing with the failed all-drugs-are-a-scourge rhetoric. But it’s hardly anything more than an attempt to send the ‘right’ message to the youth as law enforcers prefer to turn a blind eye to people smoking pot (unless they make it a nuisance to others).

More and more departments speak in favor of making cannabis-related offenses the lowest priority and introduce diversion schemes to deal with the issue without fines, arrests, and incarcerations. This trend is likely to continue, and the reality of cannabis being a noticeable part of modern life will be accepted by both the public and decision-makers. This, in turn, will sooner rather than later lead to a reform of cannabis laws in the UK.

FAQ

IS IT ILLEGAL TO SMOKE WEED IN YOUR HOME IN THE UK?

Smoking weed is illegal anywhere, including in your own home. It may give you a sense of security because you don’t do it in a public place and no one’s the wiser. But the smell of someone smoking cannabis can travel far, and your neighbors may tell on you. The standard procedure for cops is to go on patrol near your house, and if they smell weed too, you’re likely to get in trouble.

IN WHAT COUNTRIES IS WEED LEGAL?

The first country to legalize weed was Uruguay. In 2018, Canada followed suit. There was a parallel process of cannabis legalization in the US. Since 2012, 16 states plus D.C. have legalized weed for recreational purposes while 37 states and D.C. allow its medical use. Many countries around the world, including Europe, have legalized medical cannabis as well. In Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal, drug use has been decriminalized.

CAN YOU REPORT SOMEONE FOR SMOKING WEED?

British police encourage people to report any criminal activity, and smoking pot is a criminal offense. If you report someone for smoking weed, police will protect you from any repercussions. Meaning that nobody will inform the offender who has called the cops on them.

HOW FAR CAN YOU SMELL WEED?

If someone is smoking weed, you’ll probably smell it within a 50-feet radius, but it depends on many variables: whether it’s windy or not and what the wind direction is, and on how dry or humid the air is. Even the atmospheric pressure matters because it either makes the smoke go up or stay closer to the ground. And, of course, a lot depends on your strain’s dankness. If all the factors coincide, you can probably smell weed at a distance of up to 100 feet.

Posted In: CannabisMarketscontributorsLegalizationUK

BENZINGA CANNABIS CONFERENCE

Meet the biggest cannabis industry players and make deals that will push the industry forward.

Featuring live company presentations, insider panels, and unmatched access to networking, the Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference is where cannabis executives and entrepreneurs meet.

Join us April 11-12, 2023 at Fontainebleau Miami Beach in sunny Florida.