EducationWhat is the legal status of cannabis in the UK?

What is the legal status of cannabis in the UK?

7 min read

Sam North

What is the legal status of cannabis in the UK?


As interest in medical cannabis spreads around the UK, it’s understandable that accessing reliable information about its legal status has become a bit of a minefield.

For one, we live in an age in which conducting our own research into a subject or asking a simple question in a search engine can result in being confronted with conflicting answers from wildly different sources and from different countries.

It’s no wonder that there’s a certain level of confusion around the subject, which can be a source of anxiety in potential patients, especially where being misinformed could have potentially legal consequences. 

With that in mind, this article is intended to give you accurate and up-to-date information on UK cannabis classification, so that you can feel more confident in assessing your own position with regard to making a distinction between medical cannabis, and the cannabis that we associate with illegal substances. So, first up, let’s separate the two very clearly.

Separating medical and recreational cannabis

Medical cannabis and recreational cannabis may, on the surface, appear to be essentially the same product, but there are clear and important distinctions between them that are reflected in their respective legal statuses.

Crucially, these two different grades of cannabis enjoy markedly different legal statuses . One is officially prescribed by qualified specialist doctors, and is administered to ease the symptoms of various health problems. Medicinal cannabis is grown, packaged, and distributed as a licensed product with stringent and overarching regulatory procedures controlling all aspects of the production process, and well, recreational cannabis is not.

For now, let’s leave the subject of medical cannabis and its many benefits to one side as we have a look at the current legal status of recreational cannabis only. 

When we talk about recreational cannabis, we are usually referring to what may be known colloquially as ‘weed’, ‘ganga’, ‘green’, or ‘puff’. This type of cannabis is often smoked alongside tobacco or using pipes and can only be bought from unofficial or unlicensed sources, including dealers who sell other illegal drugs. 

But is recreational cannabis itself illegal? The answer to that is a very firm ‘yes’. 

So, what, exactly, is the status of the law surrounding the possession and use of recreational cannabis in the UK?

Recreational cannabis and UK law

Contrary to what some people seem to believe, recreational cannabis is still very much illegal in the UK, and is in fact a Class B controlled drug, coming under Part II of Schedule 2, of what is known as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Legally speaking, this puts recreational cannabis in the same bracket as other illegal drugs including amphetamines, barbiturates, and ketamine and is therefore potentially subject to the same penalties.

Cannabis in its recreational form is also listed in Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 and designated under equivalent Misuse of Drugs laws in England, Wales and Scotland. The classification and legal status of recreational cannabis possibly have some confusion surrounding it because the official status of the drug has changed a couple of times in recent years. 

With public attitudes to recreational cannabis use softening over several decades, it was actually lowered from Class B to Class C in January 2004, partly owing to the stiffening of penalties for distributing Class C substances. This heralded what seemed like a new era in the UK’s attitude to cannabis.

The change in classification was intended to enable police to redirect their resources towards other more serious offences, especially those involving ‘harder drugs’. There was a general feeling that too much police time and administration was being spent processing cannabis users. In fact, the government itself announced that the change in legal status had cut the number of arrests for cannabis possession by a third in just one year, saving almost 200,000 police hours.

However, this softer new era did not last very long and on 26th January 2009, cannabis was reclassified again, as a class B drug, in a move that some commentators felt indicated that the debate around policing cannabis was affected by being a political issue as well as a societal one.

The bottom line is that, to this day, despite the huge leaps made in our understanding of cannabis as a powerful ally in health management, it remains the case that it is still unlawful to possess, supply, produce, import, or export recreational cannabis unless it is made under a Home Office licence.

It is also an offence to cultivate any plant of the genus cannabis except under a Home Office licence. Though it is worth noting that such licences are only likely to be given in the context of granting licensed products to be cultivated for medical use.

So, what is the current legal status of medical cannabis?

In 2018, a full review of the legal status of medical cannabis was carried out in the UK. This resulted in changes to the law that finally allowed doctors to legally issue prescriptions to patients who they decided could benefit from medical cannabis treatments, albeit with restrictions. This change was made official on the 1st of November 2018.

After this date, doctors no longer needed to seek approval from expert panels in order to give their patients access to cannabis-based medicines. This was a major step forward in ensuring that the benefits of medical cannabis are taken seriously and properly regulated so that the full potential for treatment can be explored without anybody having to worry about breaking the law. 

After all, haven’t people suffering from health problems got enough to worry about? Here at Releaf, we certainly think so.

Find out more about the benefits of medical cannabis

The law changes regarding medicinal cannabis have opened the door for both patients and doctors to explore the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis in a safe and responsible manner. It is our mission here at Releaf to work with medical professionals and with patients to ensure that they have access to the best quality medicinal cannabis products, along with all of the information and support that they need to get the most out of their treatments.

For more detailed information about medicinal cannabis, feel free to head over to our education area. There you will find a wealth of information and articles about medicinal cannabis, its history, its effects on the body, and how it can be used as part of an overall treatment plan.

We also have our own dedicated blog section where we post regular updates about the latest news concerning medical cannabis in both the UK and internationally. We strive to ensure that not only those with existing conditions have access to the most up-to-date information, but also that people who are considering using medical cannabis for themselves or a loved one can make an informed decision.

Releaf understands the importance of medical cannabis in treating various medical conditions. With our tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, you can access the treatment you need without worrying about the stigma.

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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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

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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