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 in the UK to date. 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 current governments ‘official’ 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 parties 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 a 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.
Messaging from Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer is mixed. 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 party 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 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 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, will 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 involves an initial consultation fee, ongoing consultations, and of course a charge for the cannabis prescription.
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Additionally, even when patients are prescribed cannabis flowers, it still remains illegal to smoke cannabis, patients are usually advised to use a dry herb vapouriser 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.
As of March 2022, an estimated 13,000 prescriptions have been issued to qualifying patients in the UK, according to the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society. While this is 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 address this imbalance, a medical cannabis card scheme was launched in 2019 called Cancard.
The Cancard scheme was set up to support people who use cannabis for legitimate medical reasons that 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 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 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 officer involved to use their own discretion as to whether to decide on further action.
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 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.
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 5000 adults access to the drug to study its social impact. Decriminalisation is already in place across Europe in countries such as Portugal and Spain, with Italy set to follow suit in 2022.
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. While few details on Germany’s policy have yet been released, it is expected that the country will 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.
What are the chances of the UK legalising cannabis?
The government’s official line on cannabis isn’t likely to inspire hope, but 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.
At present, the ruling party are in search of a new leader. A new Prime Minister will lead to a new cabinet, which can lead to a change in direction on a wide number of policies. While we won’t know the new leader until September 2022, there are a number of potential leadership candidates who may have a more favourable outlook on cannabis legislation.
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 public health benefits become more apparent. 2022 may continue to move the UK closer to a legal adult cannabis market, but whether it is the year of sweeping changes remains unknown.