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The Future of Cannabis Legalization in the UK

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The Future of Cannabis Legalization in the UK

Should cannabis be legalized in the UK? Marijuana reform could lead to job opportunities and a healthier community. However, the complicated history between British politicians and cannabis make legalization seem like a distant dream.

When will cannabis be legal in the UK? The answer to that question is as complicated as Britain’s entire history with marijuana. Some politicians are optimistic that legalization is on the horizon, while others are sternly opposed to any decriminalization efforts. 

Is Cannabis Legal in the UK?

Recreational cannabis use is illegal in the UK; medical cannabis in the UK, however, is legal. Recreational cannabis use has been illegal since 1928 following Britain’s signing of the 1925 International Opium Convention. 

Cannabis is a class B drug under Britain’s regulatory system for illegal drugs, where the most serious category is A and the least is C. Other class B drugs include amphetamines, ketamine, and barbiturates. For possession, maximum penalties could include five years imprisonment and a £2,500 fine. Individuals could face up to 15 years in prison and an unlimited fine for supply or production.

Why Recreational Cannabis Should Be Legalized in the UK

Recreational cannabis use is relatively common in the UK despite the illegality. Research suggests that more than 30% of Brits have tried cannabis, and more than half are in support of legalization. Legalizing marijuana allows for the regulation of it, which is healthy for the community. Evidence shows that legalization reduces cannabis use amongst minors and makes the quality of weed safer for everyone in the community.

(Global Look Press)

Additionally, legalizing cannabis in the UK would open up a massive recreational market. Cannabis sales are expected to hit $15 billion this year, making the industry quite appealing. Furthermore, legalizing recreational weed industry in the UK would creative an enormous number of jobs. People would be needed for bud trimming jobs, to work at dispensaries, to process cannabis products, and everything in between. Britain is already the world’s largest exporter of medical cannabis, but the demand for recreational weed would cause employment and profits to soar.

How Legalization Works in the US vs. in the UK

The majority of US states have legalized via voter initiatives. In these cases, legalization has been as simple as collecting the required signatures to get a question on the ballot. However, the UK has no such mechanism. Under the UK’s parliamentary system, only Members of Parliament have the power to propose legislation. 

Broadly, this means that an issue won’t see the time of day in Parliament if the ruling majority party doesn’t see it as a winner. The press, and in particular the anti-cannabis right wing press, hold a prominent place in current British political discourse. Only one of Britain’s major political parties, the Liberal Democrats, supports legalization. However, their position in British political life was severely diminished at the 2015 election.

Why Parliament Refuses to Discuss Cannabis

The history of marijuana and British politicians is marked by hypocrisy and suspicious financial dealings. In 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Victoria Atkins to oversee Britain’s drugs policy. However, Atkins was forced to recuse herself from speaking about cannabis in parliament. That’s right – the UK’s drugs minister can’t discuss cannabis in Parliament. 


Her recusal comes as a result of her husband Paul Kenward’s role as managing director of British Sugar. British Sugar is one of the UK’s largest producers of medical marijuana. They also supply cannabis to GW Pharmaceuticals, a company which manufactures and markets the cannabis-based medicines Sativex and Epidiolex.

Kenward’s role came before Atkins’ appointment, but the whole affair raises some serious questions. Especially since Atkins isn’t the only minister facing a serious conflict of interest within the cannabis industry. Philip May, husband of Prime Minister Theresa May, works as a relationship manager at the US investment management company Capital Group. Capital Group is the largest shareholder in none other than GW Pharmaceuticals.

UK Police Forces Effectively Decriminalize Cannabis

While British politicians twiddle their thumbs over cannabis, some police forces have started to take the issue into their own hands. In 2015, Durham Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg announced that his force would divert resources away from cannabis enforcement into more serious crime. 

Following the decision, Durham Constabulary are no longer actively pursuing cannabis consumers and small-scale growers. However, those found with cannabis during the course of day-to-day police activity are still subject to fines or prosecution, and the force still investigates public reports about cultivation.

While other forces haven’t been so open about the topic, statistics from the Ministry of Justice suggest that the approach is being mirrored across the UK. In 2017, 15,120 people in England and Wales were prosecuted for cannabis possession, representing a reduction of 19% below 2015 figures. Furthermore, police cautioned just 6,254 consumers, a drop of 34% from years before.

British Politicians Against Drugs

In January 2004 under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, cannabis was reclassified from a Class B to a Class C drug. The relaxation of the law lasted for four years until 2008, when political pressure reversed the change.

Following a campaign from the Conservative party, police groups, and Britain’s right-wing press, the Labour government bowed to the pressure and reverted the change. Professor David Nutt, a respected researcher in the field of drugs and addiction, publicly clashed with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith over the reversion of cannabis to a Class B drug. Nutt eventually found himself on the chopping block for authoring a report which found that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. His claim that “ecstasy is safer than horse riding” made national headlines and caused his dismissal from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

The Fight for Medical Cannabis in the UK

Despite the anti-drug biases amongst British politicians, history shows us that cannabis reform in the UK is possible. Medical marijuana was legalized in the UK in November 2018. The final push towards achieving legalization was two high profile campaigns involving young children with epilepsy. The cases of Billie Caldwell and Alfie Dingley were widely publicized in the British press, and came to a head after Billy’s mother, Charlotte, had cannabis oil seized while trying to enter the UK. 

The incident led Home Office Minister Sajid Javid to issue temporary licenses permitting medical cannabis use for both Billy and Alfie. Three months later, Javid announced that cannabis would be downgraded from a Schedule 1 controlled drug to Schedule 2 under Britain’s regulatory system for prescription medications. This change allows specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis. However, in practice, medical marijuana is not commonly prescribed in the UK.

The Five Year Prediction

In 2018, former Conservative leader William Hague called on outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May to legalize cannabis. Hague described the UK’s current drug policy as “inappropriate, ineffective, and utterly out of date.” 

Hague isn’t the only prominent politician from the ruling party to speak out in favor of cannabis reform. Former Conservative minister and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, Crispin Blunt, predicted that cannabis will be legalized within 5 years. 

Brexit & The Future of Cannabis in the UK

Despite Blunt’s predictions, cannabis reform in the UK isn’t looking likely anytime soon. The issue has dominated British politics for three years now, with no sign of letting up. So when will UK cannabis finally be legalized? Unfortunately, it’s hard to say as Parliament remains paralyzed by Brexit.

The UK’s current date for exiting the European Union, which has now been pushed back twice, is October 31st, 2019. The ongoing fiasco has already resulted in Theresa May resigning as prime minister. While a new Prime Minister is expected by July 23rd, it seems unlikely to change the situation with respect to cannabis. The EU refuses to make alterations to the existing exit deal, and a no-deal exit is likely to result in further years of political chaos. 

Regardless of the outcome, the new Prime Minister’s time will be monopolized by Brexit for the foreseeable future. The situation will leave little opportunity to look at cannabis policies. Unless something changes soon, Blunt’s five-year prediction could turn out to be nothing more than an optimistic dream. Hopefully in the near future, people throughout the UK can smoke the Markle Sparkle strain and get lifted.

Sarah Haze

"Sarah is an American expat living in Spain with her husband and little doggie. She comes from a performing arts and teaching background with a degree from the University of London. For the past 3 years Sarah has worked in and written about the legal cannabis industry both in Spain and the US. She cares about sharing her passion for cannabis, yoga, healthy lifestyles, counterculture and travel trough writing and social media."


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