In 2001 The Labour Party announced that the classification of cannabis in the UK would be downgraded from a Class B drug to Class C, reducing the maximum penalties for possession and supply. The move effectively decriminalised the drug, allowing the Police to focus on more serious offences.
The reclassification was highly effective. A 2005 Home Office report estimated that 199,000 Police hours were saved as a result. But in 2007 Gordon Brown announced that the drug would once again become a Class B substance, going against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Cannabis has remained a Class B drug to date. Through the prism of the cannabis campaigner, it can feel like little progress has been made in changing the opinion of successive governments. Despite its classification, it is estimated that over 4.7 million people consume cannabis in the UK, creating an illegal market worth £6 billion, money that can end up directly in the hands of criminal gangs.
Changes to the law in 2018 have made medical cannabis prescriptions possible, but uptake on the NHS has been painfully slow. A growing, private medical cannabis industry has emerged in the UK, but costs and conditions remain prohibitive for many, and the legal supply chain has experienced problems such as contamination. As a result, it is estimated that in 2020 at least 1.4 million people turned to the black market to procure cannabis to treat medical conditions.
While UK residents are forced to choose between expensive prescriptions or criminality, the country remains the largest exporter of medical cannabis in the world. This hypocrisy, the size of the illegal market, and the criminalisation of desperate patients all make compelling arguments for reform, but is the UK actually any closer to a legal adult cannabis market?
The current governments ‘official’ line on cannabis
When it comes to the party line on cannabis legalisation, the Conservatives seems fairly closed. There is no mention of cannabis in the parties most recent manifesto, and the official line is that cannabis should remain regulated.
However, many in the party disagree. Notably, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt has long been an advocate for cannabis reform, setting up the Conservative Drug Policy Reform group in 2019. The CDPRG “wants UK drug policy to truly protect young people, deliver better health and social outcomes for families and communities, and reduce drug-related harms.” Much of the work from this group focuses on issues relating to the CBD industry, and not legal cannabis access, but Crispin Blunt continues to press for change from within the party.
Legal cannabis in London
Perhaps the strongest possibility for actual cannabis reform in the UK currently comes from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Khan made cannabis decriminalisation part of his official election campaign earlier in 2021 stating he would review the law if re-elected: “It will be for the commission to look at the evidence… but nothing is off the table in the context of what is best for public health and keeping Londoners safe,” said a source close to the mayor at the time. His campaign was successful, winning 55% of the vote, leading to another term in office as mayor.
The Home Office were quick to shoot down Khan’s plans during the campaign, stating that policy on controlled drugs “is a matter for UK Government” and that Boris Johnson “has absolutely no intention of legalising cannabis which is a harmful substance”.
What the opposition parties say about cannabis in the UK
The Labour Party are the main opposition party to the ruling Conservatives, but messaging on cannabis reform from the party is mixed. There are many within the part who support reform. As noted, the Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan made a review into the feasibility of cannabis decriminalisation in the capital a part of his mayoral re-election campaign. However, these views rub against those of current Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer, who took a more defensive tone earlier this year. When asked his thoughts on decriminalising cannabis possession he said “I’ve never subscribed to that view […] it causes huge issues to vulnerable people across the country”. However, he later went on to state that “there’s always room for a grown-up debate about how we deal with these cases”.
In Labour’s most recent manifesto, cannabis only received a solitary mention, with the party pledging they will “progress clinically appropriate prescription[s] of medical cannabis.” However, the manifesto also pledged to developing a public health approach to substance misuse that would see the UK move away from criminalisation and towards harm reduction.
Other parties take a much more positive approach. The Liberal Democrats have long supported cannabis reform, and believe past Labour and Conservative policies have been driven by fear rather than evidence. In their 2019 manifesto, cannabis is specifically mentioned: “Our approach will support and encourage more clinical trials of cannabis for medicinal use to establish a clear evidence base. In the meantime, we will allow those who feel that cannabis helps to manage their pain to do so without fear of criminal prosecution.”
The Green Party go one step further, not only pledging to end the prohibition of all drugs, but to support the development of licenced Cannabis Social Clubs, where members can cultivate, prepare and consume cannabis for recreational purposes as a co-operative. Interestingly, The Greens also recognise the role of CBD in cannabis preventing harm from high levels of THC, and also pledge that all commercially available cannabis products should have a minimum of 1% Cannabidiol.
In Scotland, the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party backed the decriminalisation of drugs in 2019, including cannabis. Scotland has one of Europe’s leading drug death rates, and members of the party are calling for the UK Government to hand drug powers over to the devolved Scottish parliament so they can urgently make drugs a public health matter.
Changes in police approach – backdoor decriminalisation
The law in the UK states that cannabis possession is punishable with a maximum sentence of up to 5 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. Police are also allowed to issue on the spot fines of £90 for cannabis possessions.
Despite the sentencing options, many police forces are opting to forgo prosecution, choosing instead to use ‘community resolutions’ which deal with cannabis in a non-criminal way.
Police data recently analysed by House of Commons researchers showed the number of offences for possession of cannabis fell from 160,733 in 2010/11 to 110,085 in 2019/20.
Less than a quarter of those offences actually went on to the offender being charged, showing that the police do not consider cannabis possession to be a serious crime.
A number of police and crime commissioners have publicly stated support for alternatives to criminal convictions for cannabis, instead opting for ‘diversion schemes’. In addition to this more welfare led approach, a cannabis card scheme launched in 2020 has received police backing.
The Cancard allows medical cannabis users who are not able to afford a private prescription to register with the scheme. Upon providing evidence they have a legitimate medical reason to use cannabis, users are issued with a card which, when presented to an officer, is designed to explain the reason they may have cannabis in their possession. While the card doesn’t operate as a ‘get out of jail free card’ it is hoped that it will educate officers as to why a person may be in possession of cannabis without a prescription. The officers are then able to use their own discretion as to whether to arrest or fine the holder. Initial reports show that in most situations, stops by police resulted in no arrests for Cancard holders.
Pressure from abroad
While the UK drags its heels on progress, changes abroad are likely to mount pressure on domestic cannabis policy. Uruguay was the first country to legalise cannabis for adults in 2013, followed by Canada in 2018. Across the USA, nearly all states have either decriminalised or legalised cannabis in some way. Technically, cannabis is still illegal at a federal level, but with 67% of Americans believing cannabis should be legal for adults, and President Joe Biden stating that he wants marijuana decriminalised and criminal records of those convicted of possession of the drug expunged, it’s likely that the country will change its laws soon.
Many countries in Europe are also reviewing cannabis. Luxembourg is set to legalise adult access in 2021. The Netherlands, famous for its relaxed attitude to cannabis, wants to update laws to make all parts of the industry legal and regulated. Switzerland will launch a 5000 person trial to understand the economic and social impact of a legal cannabis market. Malta recently announced adults will be allowed to grow and possess cannabis, while countries such as Portugal, Germany, France are all looking at their existing laws and how they can be changed.
It’s no secret that the UK looks to the US for political influence, and despite Brexit, the country still has close ties with European partners. Shifts in attitudes and policies abroad are likely to mount pressure on our government when it comes to cannabis laws.
So what are the chances?
The government’s official line on cannabis isn’t likely to inspire hope, but a reflective look on the past few years shows progress is happening, albeit slowly. Aside from official party policy, many steps forward have been made, specifically with access to medical cannabis for the people who need it most.
The Conservative’s may appear steadfast, but the current leadership isn’t exactly known for sticking to ‘official’ opinion, and the current leader once spoke favourably for cannabis consumption. In a video from 2000 Johnson went on record to say he saw no reason why his “respectable neighbours who roll up a spliff and quietly smoke it together” are “in breach of the law”.
VIDEO. In the year 2000, @BorisJohnson asks why his "respectable neighbours who roll up a spliff and quietly smoke it together" are "in breach of the law"? #cannabis #drugspolicy pic.twitter.com/Lib6iy4kUr
— CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform (@CLEARUK) January 27, 2021
Public support for legal cannabis in the UK is at an all time high. A recent YouGov survey showed only 32% of people in the UK oppose legal cannabis. Commercial pressure is mounting on the government, as countries around the world capitalise on the economic benefits and tax revenue. Police forces across the country are already relaxing their approach to cannabis and evidence continues to mount that legal cannabis markets do not lead to public health disasters.
2021 might not be the year the law changes, but the pressure is mounting, and the arguments to keep cannabis criminalised continue to get weaker.