A common question that is asked, “will weed be legal in the UK?” The UK has some of the harshest cannabis laws globally and has long been criticised for its ineffective approach to dealing with illicit drugs.
But pressure is mounting on the government to follow the lead of Canada, which a couple of years ago became the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalise marijuana.
Several US states, Germany and Italy, have already legalised or decriminalised cannabis at some level. Many argue that it is time for the UK to follow suit – but when will cannabis be legalised in the UK?
As mentioned, the UK’s cannabis laws are strict, but they’re not absolute.
The country has a long history of grey areas in its cannabis legislation and a clear trend of moving towards less punitive measures. What are your options if you’re an adult looking to buy or use cannabis in the UK?
As with many things in life, the answer is “it depends.” It depends on whether you have a medical need for cannabis, where you are in the UK, and the local police force’s attitude towards recreational users.
First things first: it’s illegal to cultivate or possess cannabis in the UK. You can be arrested and fined for either offence. Read on to find out more about UK weed legalisation.
Current legal status of cannabis in the UK
Cannabis has been illegal in Britain since 1928. It’s a Class B drug, along with amphetamines and barbiturates, and possession can lead to five years in prison and an unlimited fine.
It is also against the law to drive under the influence of cannabis and those who do could face a fine, a driving ban or up to six months in prison.
If caught selling or supplying cannabis, you can receive up to 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine
The punishment for breaking these laws depends on the amount of drug you have and whether you’re also dealing with it.
However, cannabis is often downgraded to a Class C drug if police seize it, meaning offenders will likely get no more than a fine and a warning and confiscate the substance.
The police can issue fines for small amounts (up to about £100) for possession of weed on the street. They will arrest and charge you for more than that amount with ‘intent to supply’ rather than ‘personal use’. It’ll then be up to the courts whether they decide it was for personal use or not. Having a grinder, baggies and scales will probably make them decide it is for dealing – even if it isn’t.
Cannabis possession offenses are down by almost 50,000 since 2010, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library.
And that’s not all; less than a quarter of cannabis possession offenses went on to the offender being charged with a crime (the rest resulted in a caution or penalty notice). In many cases, the police don’t consider cannabis possession to be something they should waste their time on.
As a result of the growing buzz around legalisation and looking at the legal status in other western countries, many crime commissioners recently spoke on their opinions towards alternatives to criminal convictions. Many law enforcement officers believe a better approach will free up resources spent on convictions and lead to few arrests on small possession of cannabis.
The 2018 report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – which advises ministers on drug-related policy – recommended that cannabis-derived medicinal products should be moved from schedule 1 (no therapeutic benefit) to schedule 2 (controlled drugs that a doctor can prescribe).
Cannabis for medical use was legalised in November 2018, with specialist doctors prescribing it for certain conditions. While it took a few months to get the first prescriptions written, it is now available on the NHS.
At the end of 2019, the Home Office announced they would not be challenging court rulings that allow children with epilepsy access to medical cannabis. The legislation ensures that children with rare forms of epilepsy have access to their medication.
Decriminalisation of cannabis in London
While the UK has been slow on the uptake in cannabis reform, Sadiq Khan has made it an active part of his plan. The mayor of London seems to be leading the charge in this area and could go a long way towards ensuring legalisation happens in Britain as a whole.
Other than this, it is difficult to say what the British government’s approach will be. There is much discussion about cannabis reform, but nothing concrete has yet been decided. Of course, this is subject to change, as a lot can happen during a political campaign.
Sadiq Khan’s victory in the mayoral elections in the UK has been met with enthusiasm by many. The current mayor of London has announced plans to introduce decriminalisation of cannabis. Instead of being arrested, he put forward proposals to introduce a pilot scheme that would see under-25s caught with the drug offered counselling or education classes.
Meanwhile, police have been trialling the scheme in London to see people caught with cannabis diverted away from the criminal justice system. According to an article recently published by The Independent, a leaked report stated that the pilot scheme was to be rolled out in early January 2022, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act – a piece of legislation that outlawed cannabis and other class B drugs.
The program will run in Greenwich, Bexley, Lewisham, Lambeth, and other previously known hotspots for drug sales and use. Instead of being arrested, people caught with cannabis are offered “diversion” – either to a drug education course or one-to-one meetings with a youth worker.
Medical marijuana in the UK
The use of medicinal marijuana products in the UK was legalised in November 2018 as part of the government’s drive to allow more people access to other means of treatment. But it can only be prescribed by specialist doctors and only for certain conditions. The list of conditions that qualify for a prescription is quite short. It includes chronic pain, severe epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, and other conditions that cause serious muscle spasms.
Only those treated at private specialist centres can obtain a prescription for medical cannabis. However, the barriers to access these centres are high due to an unequal distribution across regions and a lack of understanding among doctors about how to use medical cannabis and refer patients.
Additionally, when patients are prescribed medical cannabis, they’re usually advised to use a dry herb vaporiser for medical consumption. They’re only allowed to legally possess the cannabis issued by their medical dispensary, not any other cannabis. Some 18,000 children and adults have been prescribed specialist treatments on the NHS since November 2018.
A new system was introduced in 2019 called Cancard.This will allow people with a recognised medical condition who have received a prescription to access medical cannabis products from pharmacies that operate under the scheme.
Basically, it’s a card that people with a legitimate medical reason can apply for, making it easier for them to access medical marijuana. There’s no limit on the amount of cannabis that police can confiscate; when you have your card you don’t have to face prosecution for possession of cannabis. It doesn’t mean that you get out of getting arrested, but it helps explain your situation and make things easier if you get caught.
When will the UK legalise cannabis?
Now let us tackle the burning question, “when will cannabis be legalised in the UK?” In the past few years, there has been growing support among UK politicians of all parties to reform cannabis laws across the country. The Liberal Democrats and Greens want to legalise and regulate the production and supply of cannabis for recreational use. Labour wants to decriminalise medical use, and many Conservative politicians now say they would consider decriminalisation if medical evidence supports it.
Cannabis is currently illegal across most of Europe, but some countries have taken a more progressive stance towards the issue. Some European countries will likely follow the lead of Malta and Luxembourg into legalising medical cannabis and, soon after, recreational use.
From the European Commission’s latest study on the world’s most promising green economies, it’s clear that Europe is leading the way in cannabis policy reform. The survey and its country profiles demonstrate that legalisation is a justifiable alternative to prohibition and important for economic development.
The public attitude has been shifting towards the legalisation of cannabis. The UK Home Office has granted licences for about eight cannabis-based medicines since 2016. And whilst it is unlikely that we will see full legalisation any time soon, the laws surrounding cannabis will likely start to change as well.
The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, supported the legalisation of cannabis as a personal crusade. While his party backed this stance, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been more cautious in their approach. Labour has stalled on any reform until after the next election, while the Liberal Democrats are pushing legislation to delay the inevitable decision on full legalisation until at least 2027.
Despite these delays, reform is progressing within government departments. Medical cannabis legislation has been pushed through parliament without dissent. An amendment was also added to the 2017 Cannabis Bill, which meant doctors would prescribe medical cannabis for patients suffering from MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and epilepsy if they received special permission from their GP. The new law came into effect on November 1st 2018.
While the government doesn’t budge on its stance that cannabis shouldn’t be legalised due to the “serious health risks associated with its use” and “harmful effects on individuals and communities”, there have been several significant steps forward over the past few years.
The most significant was the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018. Since then, there have been some positive developments, including changes to prescribing regulations and a Home Office review into cannabis-derived medicinal products, which will consider whether further changes should be made.
Many also argue that de facto decriminalisation has already taken place in many parts. Police forces across England and Wales have focused their efforts on violent crime and serious offences rather than possessing small amounts of cannabis for personal use. This will only serve to continue shifting public attitudes towards cannabis and make it less likely that those caught in possession will face any law enforcement at all.
Public support for legal cannabis is at an all-time high. A new YouGov survey found that only 32% of people oppose weed legalisation in the UK.
The results are the latest in a string of positive indicators that should encourage the government to take action rather than leave the market to companies with vested interests and questionable reputations.
The landmark decision by Canada to legalise adult-use cannabis could be a bellwether for a similar change here. The UK has remained steadfast in its prohibition of cannabis, but things are changing as the political and social landscape evolves. Too much pressure from international markets is likely to accelerate that process.
There are many reasons that people believe cannabis will become legal in the UK in the coming years. For example, the economic benefits and tax revenue from allowing marijuana to be sold legally would be huge. In other words, there are many good reasons to make cannabis legal, and it seems unlikely that prohibition will continue much longer.
The bottom line
So, will the UK legalise cannabis just like Uruguay, the USA, Canada and other European countries? There’s no way to know for sure, but there are a few things that can inspire hope. Here in the UK, several petitions have been set up to get cannabis legalised, with thousands of people signing each one. The current Conservative government has said they will consider any proposals. There certainly seems to be some momentum towards UK weed legalisation, though it may take a little more time.