EducationA historical overview of cannabis legality in the UK

A historical overview of cannabis legality in the UK

6 min read

Kerry Charron

A historical overview of cannabis legality in the UK

Cannabis (and hemp) cultivation and use have undergone eras of both prosperity and restriction in the United Kingdom. It was cultivated for centuries throughout the UK, and at times the monarchy even mandated hemp production. Hemp fibre was used to make ship sails and other heavy-strength fabrics. 

The plant’s main use was industrial, but medical cannabis administration and recreational use were also common. However, cannabis became stigmatized and prohibited beginning in the early 1900s. It is just beginning to gain more acceptance and formal acknowledgement of its potential therapeutic uses following the 2018 legalisation of medical cannabis and fewer restrictions on medical research.


A brief overview of cannabis and its historical use in the UK

Cannabis was often used for medicinal and recreational uses up until the 1928 Drugs Act. This legislative act made cannabis cultivation and use illegal. Cannabis is classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 as a Class B drug. Under this act, Class A substances are classified as the most harmful and Class C as the least. 

In 2004, the United Kingdom classified cannabis as a Class C drug with less severe penalties, but it was changed back to Class B in 2009. This law stipulates that the penalty for cannabis possession or any Class B substance can be a prison sentence of up to 5 years. Illegal cultivation and sales of cannabis can result in up to 14 years in prison. Both cultivation and possession can come with significant fines.

Medical cannabis was legalized in 2018. As the medical cannabis program grows, doctors and patients are calling for increased guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the National Health Service (NHS).

Many younger UK citizens are in favour of cannabis legalisation, but (and this is purely in general) older citizens tend to support criminalization. About 38% of people aged 25–49 years old support the legalisation of cannabis, but this percentage of support drops in the aged 50 and over groups.

Cannabis legalisation

Cannabis use and hemp production were subject to less regulation in past centuries. Some would say the legislative pendulum swung from a tolerant approach in earlier times to a prohibitive stance in the 20th century. Then the pendulum began to swing back to a more tolerant stance in the last century, specifically the past few decades. 

For example, Queen Elizabeth mandated that farmers with 60 acres or more must grow hemp or pay a fine in 1563. In the 1600s, England increased efforts to grow fibre hemp. By the 1800s, cannabis was commonly used to treat pain, nausea, insomnia, and neurological disorders. However, it was banned in the early part of the 1900s and is only now becoming more accepted.

Early Regulation of Cannabis in the UK

Pivotal regulatory events in UK history created a climate that began to constrain the unregulated medicinal and recreational cannabis use of the 1800s. The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 restricted the sales, possession, and use of drugs opium, heroin, and cocaine. Cannabis was not included in this bill, because policymakers did not consider it dangerous at this time. Even though this Act did not target cannabis, many believe the policy was an indicator of an emerging broader effort to control and restrict all drugs.

Only a few years later, the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1928 would restrict cannabis production, sales, and use.

Changing attitudes towards cannabis in the UK

With the increasing body of research indicating medicinal cannabis’s effectiveness in safely and effectively treating a range of symptoms, people have adopted more favourable views of cannabis use.

This way of thinking truly started creating a groundswell of support back in the mid-60s, when the ‘Summer of Love’ saw people in England, America and elsewhere turning to cannabis for a more spiritual, holistic approach to life.

The movement grew into the 70s, when countless studies began showing that cannabis had the potential as an effective medicine. It was around this time that many Europeans started recognizing its benefits; first Spain and Italy moved towards decriminalization, and then the Netherlands followed suit.

In November 2018, medical cannabis was legalised in the UK for the first time since its prohibition. The UK government’s decision to allow access to medical cannabis products with a doctor’s prescription marked an important milestone in terms of public opinion and legislation.

The shift in attitudes towards cannabis, and particularly the medical applications of this wonderful plant, has been extraordinary. It’s a sign of the times that cannabis is now being looked at in terms of its medicinal benefits, rather than simply as an illegal drug with ‘no redeeming qualities’.

It is now clear that cannabis has numerous potential uses, and the UK government is taking steps to ensure that its citizens have access to safe and effective medical treatments. But, it is still classed as a Class B drug in the UK, and is illegal to possess without a prescription.

Increased police crackdowns on cannabis use and possession

The illicit market is quite active and large in the UK. Police forces are cracking down on cannabis farms functioning discreetly in residential homes. The police had to destroy over 2 million £ (pounds) worth of cannabis confiscated during raids of indoor “farms” found in residential homes. It is estimated that over 400,000 people in the UK are growing illegal cannabis, and the black market is worth billions of pounds.

Penalties for cannabis possession and supply

Drugs penalties according to UK law are as follows:

  • Possession can result in a prison sentence of five years or more, an unlimited fine, or both penalties.
  • Supply and production can result in 14 or more years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

Increased acceptance of medicinal cannabis

Overall, the general public is becoming more accepting of medical cannabis. There is significant interest in the plant’s many therapeutic uses.

As the public support for cannabis legalisation grows, many are advocating for decriminalization of the possession of cannabis. While it is unlikely for first-time offenders to receive a prison sentence, the penalty can be up to five years and potential fines.

Recent developments in the UK's cannabis laws

Medical cannabis is a recent development in policy reform, but progress in other areas such as broadening the list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis patients, overall decriminalization initiatives, and advocacy for recreational/adult use of cannabis has been slow.

Final Thoughts

There are many signs that acceptance and legalisation of cannabis use will continue to increase and regulations will be introduced and revised. UK’s legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018 is a relatively new development in the larger cannabis history timeline, and it indicates that recreational cannabis is a potential future reality, even if it is still years away.

Releaf understands that medical cannabis can be life-changing for many people. That's why we offer tailored monthly packages based on your cannabis prescription, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Kerry, with experience as a medicinal cannabis cultivation technician and expertise in business licensing applications, is passionate about developing educational content and advocating for better access to medical cannabis worldwide.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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