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 across the United Kingdom, 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. Sadly, 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, making it illegal to possess, supply, or produce cannabis in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Possession can result in a maximum of 5 years in prison, and supplying cannabis carries a maximum possible sentence of 14 years. Through the prism of the cannabis campaigner, it can feel like cannabis laws are still draconian, especially as countries across the world relax cannabis laws to allow adults legal access to the plant for pleasure. Despite its classification and harsh penalties, it is estimated that over 4.7 million people consume cannabis in the UK, creating a black market economy worth £6 billion.
Changes to the law in November 2018 made medical cannabis prescriptions possible, but uptake on the NHS has been painfully slow, with just 3 whole plant prescriptions in 3 years. 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 at least 1.4 million people turn 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 ‘official’ government line on cannabis
When it comes to the official party line on cannabis legalisation, the ruling Conservatives seem fairly closed to reform. There is no mention of cannabis in the party’s most recent manifesto, and quizzed MPs will often stick to the party’s policy that cannabis should remain regulated in the United Kingdom.
However, many in the party disagree with this approach. 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 medical cannabis, and not recreational cannabis use, 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 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.
In January 2022, a leaked report showed that plans for a pilot scheme to decriminalise cannabis and other class B drugs in London were underway. The scheme will divert people under the age of 25 away from the courts and a potential criminal record, and instead offer those caught in possession of Class B drugs the opportunity to partake in education and advocacy-style courses or counselling. Police officers will be instructed not to arrest young people and to take them back to their family homes instead.
In May 2022, Khan further strengthened his plans, when he announced the formation of the first London drugs commission to examine the effectiveness of the UK’s drug laws, with a particular focus on the laws on cannabis. The panel, chaired by Lord Charlie Falconer QC, a former lord chancellor and justice secretary, will also be made up of a panel of independent experts in criminal justice, public health, politics, community relations and academia, and will consider evidence from around the world on the outcomes of various drug policies.
What the opposition parties say about cannabis in the UK
The Labour Party is the main opposition party to the ruling Conservatives, but messaging on cannabis reform from the party is mixed. There are many within the party who support reform including Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
The view of Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer is less clear. When asked his thoughts on decriminalising cannabis possession in 2021 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”. Later in 2021, he expressed support for a drug decriminalisation scheme in Scotland, stating that there was “a world of difference between a decision not to prosecute a particular case and ripping up the drug laws.” “It is not unusual in any legal system for those caught with small amounts of cannabis not to be prosecuted,” he added.
The party does support increased access to cannabis for medical purposes. In the most recent Labour manifesto, the party pledged they will “progress clinically appropriate prescription[s] of medical cannabis.” The manifesto also pledged to develop a public health approach to substance misuse that would see the UK move away from criminalisation and towards harm reduction.
Other parties take a far 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 in their drug policy, 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 cooperative. 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 has backed the decriminalisation of all drugs, including cannabis. Scotland has one of Europe’s leading drug death rates, and it is hoped that decriminalising the possession of small amounts of all drugs, from Class A to Class C, would reduce harm.
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 in many cases the police do not consider cannabis possession to be a serious crime.
A growing number of police and crime commissioners are now publicly stating support for alternatives to criminal convictions for cannabis, instead opting for ‘diversion schemes’ which free up police resources and prevent individuals from obtaining criminal convictions for small amounts of cannabis possession.
Medical cannabis is legal in the UK
Since November 2018 it has been possible for specialist doctors to legally issue prescriptions for cannabis-based medicines in the United Kingdom. For the majority of people in the UK, this is the only route to possessing cannabis legally, however, there are a number of limitations.
In order to be eligible, a patient will need to have a qualifying condition and usually will need to have tried two previous prescription medications or treatments for their condition. Prescriptions are only available through private clinics, which involve an initial consultation fee, ongoing consultations, and of course a charge for the cannabis prescription.
Additionally, even when patients are prescribed cannabis flowers, it still remains illegal to smoke cannabis. Patients are usually advised to use a dry herb vaporiser for medical consumption, and are only allowed to legally possess the flowers issued by the pharmacy, not any other cannabis. Despite the change in law, many patrol officers are unclear on the legal status of cannabis, with a number of high-profile incidents of patients wrongly being detained or having medicine confiscated by the police.
At the UK Medical Cannabis Patient Conference 2023, Professor Mike Barnes told the audience that an estimated 1,ooo NHS prescriptions for cannabis have been written since the law changed in 2018, and that 32,000 patients are currently receiving cannabis prescriptions via private clinics. While this is positive progress, it still excludes many people who may not qualify on medical criteria or may not be able to afford a private cannabis prescription. To improve patient access, the Cannabis Industry Council is attempting to amend the Misuse Of Drugs Act with a bill which would enable GPs to prescribe cannabis medicines in the UK.
Does the UK have a medical cannabis card?
No official medical cannabis card system exists in the UK. The Cancard scheme was set up in 2019 to support people who use cannabis for legitimate medical reasons but can not access medical cannabis through the private system. Upon providing evidence that a person has a legitimate medical reason to use cannabis, members are issued with a card which, when presented to a police 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 does offer a recognised explanation of mitigating circumstances which can help influence a police officer’s course of action when someone is found in possession of cannabis. However, it is down to the individual officers involved to use their own discretion as to whether to decide on further action, and some prescribed patients have expressed concerns that Cancard has complicated the relationship with the police as to what is needed to validate a legal prescription. Other card schemes, such as the now-defunct MedCannID and the soon to be launched Canndr Patient Card link a patient’s prescription records with a physical card, but such schemes only repeat what is shown on medication containers.
Pressure from abroad
The rest of the world is currently seeing sweeping changes to cannabis legislation. 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 a poll suggests support for cannabis legalisation across the country is strong, with 68% of Americans believing marijuana should be legal for adults. Recently, President Joe Biden announced that he would pardon thousands of people who have federal convictions for marijuana possession. In addition, the president instructed his Secretary of Health and the Attorney General to begin reviewing how cannabis is classified under federal drug laws, which many expect to lead to total decriminalisation across the country.
Europe is also experiencing a burgeoning green wave of policy change. In 2021, Malta became the first European country to legalise cannabis for adult use. Luxembourg also announced its laws are due to change. The Netherlands, famous for its relaxed approach to cannabis, will also legalise the commercial market for adult use, and Switzerland is set to launch a trial allowing 5,000 adults access to the drug to study its social impact. In July 2022, policymakers from Germany, Malta, The Netherlands and Luxembourg met to formally discuss “the regulation of cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific uses” in what was dubbed a “historic” summit, as it was the first formal meeting between Europen countries to progress cannabis legalisation across borders. In addition, decriminalisation is already in place across Europe in countries such as Portugal and Spain, with other countries such as Italy set to follow suit.
Most famously, Europe’s largest economy Germany is set for sweeping cannabis reforms. Following on from the election at the end of 2021, a newly formed coalition government announced plans to legalise cannabis for adult access across the country, in a bid to reduce harm. A report estimated that legalising cannabis could benefit the German economy by around £4bn per year and create 27,000 new jobs. As expected, the country formalised its plans in October 2022 with the release of a 19-page report on how to move forward with legalisation, and citizens can expect to see the first recreational cannabis sales in early 2024.
It’s no secret that the UK looks to the US for political influence, and despite Brexit, the country still has close ties with its European neighbours. Shifts in attitudes and policies abroad, as well as attractive tax revenues, are likely to mount pressure on the UK government when it comes to cannabis laws.
Rishi Sunak and cannabis – Is the latest PM the most likely for reform?
On Tuesday 6th September 2022, Liz Truss was appointed as the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom following the resignation of Boris Johnson. On 25th October 2022, she resigned from her role, to be replaced by Rishi Sunak.
The ruling Conservative party is in a degree of turmoil. On the matter of cannabis, Sunak has remained fairly neutral in his campaigns to become the leader of the party, offering few clues as to how he might approach reform.
As Chancellor during the Boris Johnson years, Sunak launched the Future Fund to invest in fast-growing businesses in the UK. The government-backed fund took a stake in two cannabis-based businesses, CBD brands Grass & Co. and OTO.
Sunak inherits a country in a state of financial crisis. Brexit, COVID and spiralling inflation are all weakening an economy left reeling after the disastrous short tenure of Liz Truss. Sunak will be mindful that he has a huge fiscal hole to fill, and with overwhelming support for some sort of unity in the party to prevent a general election, it’s possible he may be able to get radical policies through with greater ease.
Much resistance to cannabis comes from senior backbenchers and right-wingers within the Tory party, but as the youngest-ever PM, Sunak may be open to some progressive changes to drive economic growth. Previous estimates have suggested that legalising cannabis in the UK could net the Treasury between £1bn and £3.5bn a year in tax revenues, as well as saving the already underfunded police and courts hundreds of millions. A group of cannabis trade bodies recently presented a Brexit-led case for hemp reform to leadership candidates, which could at least begin to unlock some of the environmental benefits of the plant. But as the party remains divided predictions are, ultimately, impossible.
What are the chances of the UK legalising cannabis?
The government’s official line on cannabis isn’t likely to inspire hope. Towards the end of 2022, Home Secretary Suella Braverman expressed her belief that cannabis should be reclassified as a Class A drug. Fortunately, No 10 rejected the idea, but it follows on from the Government blocking moves by Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory, to legalise cannabis in the island nation. While these actions might seem pessimistic, a reflective look at the past few years shows progress is happening, albeit slowly. Aside from official party policy, many steps forward have been made, medical cannabis reforms are ongoing, and de facto decriminalisation will mean public attitudes towards cannabis continue to shift.
Perhaps most encouragingly, public support for legal cannabis in the UK is at an all-time high, a 2019 YouGov survey showed that only 32% of people in the UK oppose legal cannabis. A more recent survey by Civitas found that 5.85 million adults who haven’t used cannabis in the last ten years would try it if it were legalised. Commercial and political 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.
The arguments to keep cannabis criminalised continue to get weaker, while the benefits of legalisation become more apparent. Progress and changes are happening at a slow pace and neighbouring countries continue to adopt more positive attitudes towards cannabis, all increasing pressure for change in the UK. As more people understand the medical potential of cannabis, and as neighbouring countries relax their laws, attitudes amongst the general public will continue to shift. As the country lurches from leader to leader, and perhaps even towards a new party at the next general election, it’s unlikely we’ll see sweeping reforms in the coming months, but the case for cannabis legalisation in the UK continues to get stronger and stronger.