EducationWill cannabis gain legal status in the UK?

Will cannabis gain legal status in the UK?

12 min read

Editorial Team

Will cannabis gain legal status in the UK?

Many are curious: will the UK move beyond its current medical cannabis laws and join the select few nations that have nationally legalized recreational cannabis?

Let's delve into the factors at play and explore the current positions from across the political spectrum, as well as the viewpoints of influential individuals who hold the power to enact change.


The Conservative Party

Medical cannabis laws were changed in 2018 by the Conservative government – a move that surprised many, especially when considering the Tories' history of blocking and stalling any discussions or changes to drug laws. Since then, specialist doctors have written over 89,000 prescriptions for cannabis-based medicinal products and licences have been granted for companies to produce cannabis flowers for the UK medical market. The ruling party remains focused on keeping cannabis a Schedule 2 Class B drug.

Party leader and prime minister Rishi Sunak is the UK's youngest PM; despite his younger-than-average age for the role, he believes that the current drug policy is working. 

During his leadership campaign, he attacked hopeful opponent Liz Truss by highlighting that she supported cannabis law reform during her Oxford University years, when she was the one-time president of the Liberal Democrats.

When Sunak was chancellor in Boris Johnson's cabinet, he started the Future Fund to help grow the economy by investing in fast-growing companies. As a result, two cannabis companies received investment; they were CBD brands OTO and Grass & Co. So, whilst the PM may hold a negative stigma towards broader cannabis liberalisation, he does see the economic benefit of the legal CBD industry in Britain.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman drew the media spotlight over cannabis after the 2022 Conservative Party conference. The news came after a group of Tory Police Crime Commissioners raised the idea of moving cannabis to a Class A drug, which Braverman reportedly favoured. The Home Office said there would be no change of policy. 

When former PM Theresa May was Home Secretary, she was accused by Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg of trying to alter the results of the Home Office's latest drugs report. The report showed that treating drug use as a health issue was having beneficial outcomes. Still, May wanted to prevent the full extent of the findings from being published.

During the campaign to legalize cannabis as a medicine, the news that Theresa May's husband was the Capital Groups investment relationship manager for cannabis cultivation licence holder GW Pharmaceuticals. Within the same time frame, investigative journalists revealed that serving Drugs Minister Victoria Atkins's husband, who is the CEO of British Sugar, to be cultivating acres of cannabis in greenhouses legally under contract for GW Pharmaceuticals. This raised public concerns over a conflict of interest. 

The Times published a story detailing how the Home Office won a 2023 court case enabling them to keep the findings of a report secret. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs had suggested decriminalising cannabis in the report, the first report in the ACMD's 52-year history not to be published prompting resignations.

So, while the Tories did pass the medical cannabis legislation into law, they are not known for their liberal views on cannabis, and recent decisions have all gone against legalisation, decriminalisation or any policy platform other than prohibition.

The Labour Party

Since Sir Keir Starmer took over as leader of Labour in 2020, the party has held a strong stance against cannabis legalisation. Changing his position was a 180 turnaround from the former Crown Prosecution Service head's leadership campaign, when he said he would consider decriminalising cannabis if he became PM – but wouldn't legalise it immediately. 

The Labour leader has been quoted saying "I don't think we should decriminalise drugs," adding, "I've seen first-hand the damage that drug taking has and does to people's lives." Starmer's official line on cannabis is that "it's not low-level [crime]; it's ruining people's lives."

Sadiq Khan has been London's Mayor since 2016 and used his time in office to encourage forward-thinking policies around cannabis. Khan set up the London Drugs Commission and went to places like California to speak to law enforcement and politicians about legalisation. Steve Reed, Labour's Shadow Justice Minister and MP for North Croydon, has spoken out against the Mayor's ambitions and clarified that decriminalisation will not happen under a Labour government. 

Another outspoken member of the Labour Party is MP Jeff Smith in Manchester, who has introduced a Medical Cannabis Access Bill. If passed, this bill would make it legal for GPs to prescribe medicinal cannabis products, and cut the need for prescriptions to be sourced only from doctors registered on the General Medical Council (GMC) specialist register. The bill is awaiting a second reading. Gower MP Tonia Antonazi has also been vocal on the matter, speaking in parliament on behalf of constituents who need access to medical cannabis through the NHS, but currently cannot obtain it. Antonazi serves as the Shadow Health Minister and has been involved in pressuring the government to improve access to medical cannabis for patients in need.

The Labour Party's stance on cannabis legalisation has been clear since Keir Starmer took the party's helm. While some party members have been vocal about the issue, the overall party line remains cautious and against any immediate changes to cannabis laws in the UK. However, with growing public support for legalisation and increasing evidence of its medical benefits, it is possible that Labour's stance may evolve in the future.

The Liberal Democrat Party

During the Lib Dems' shared government with the conservatives, they made every effort to keep the subject of drug policy reform on the table. The lack of acceptance from the majority side of the hung parliament kept the debate from progressing, and as we have learned already, Theresa May made efforts to prevent the Liberal Democrats' desire for constructive discourse from taking place effectively.

The Liberal Democrats' policy manifesto contains details of their pledge to regulate cannabis in the UK as a harm reduction measure but also because they believe it would bring in £1 billion in tax revenue per year.

Although cannabis legalisation continues to be a manifesto pledge for the Lib Dems, they have remained quiet on this issue, alluding to the more serious societal issues taking precedence. Ed Davy now leads the middle ground party and has a history of supporting reform but has been silent regarding recreational cannabis reform since becoming leader.

Norman Lamb, the Member of Parliament representing North Norfolk, has emerged as a prominent advocate for reforming cannabis laws within the Liberal Democrats party. Lamb has consistently voiced support for the medicinal use of cannabis and the establishment of a well-regulated cannabis market for adult consumers. In a BBC documentary exploring cannabis legalisation in Canada, he legally acquired and consumed cannabis oil to aid with sleep and relaxation. Lamb told the Guardian,

“I was really anxious because I had the hearing of the technology and science select committee the next day and I was travelling back overnight, and I just thought if I get back having had no sleep it will be a challenge.”

The MP added that he felt “it was ridiculous he could not bring it home with him “because to bring it back into the country would have been a criminal act”.

The Green Party

The party with the smallest number of MPs has been the loudest regarding drug policy reform. The Greens have been very vocal about supporting cannabis reform if they came into power, including regulating cannabis through cannabis social clubs in their manifesto. The Green Party argues for allocating the economic benefits of the cannabis industry to empower communities and small businesses.

The Green Party believe drug policy is both a health issue and a human rights issue where guidance, regulation and compassion will create a fairer society with less drug-related harms. 

What the public polls say

YouGov polling in 2022 amongst adults in London showed 33-50% support for changing the law to decriminalise or legalise cannabis.

When the public was asked in 2018 what they thought would happen to general cannabis consumption if the government legalised cannabis, 35% said things would stay the same, 27% said it would probably increase, whilst 25% said it would almost certainly increase. Only 5% thought there would be a reduction. 

Petitions posted on the UK Parliament's petition site calling for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis gained small-scale support, with one reaching 18,246. The government are required to respond to petitions that achieve over 10,000 signatures which read, "The Government has no plans to change cannabis policy or allow a public vote on the issue of legalisation." stating cannabis's illegal status of a Class B drug as the reason they won't legalise it. 

In 2018 the same petition site received 29,775 calling for a referendum on cannabis, but the government's response was the same, dismissing the voters' call to action.

Cannabis policy changes in Europe

The Netherlands has tolerated cannabis sales through licenced coffee shops since the 1970s, but only recently granted a few licences for cultivation. The experiment will look at legal supply chain options to provide products to coffee shops. 

Luxembourg legalised medical cannabis in 2018. In 2022 the country legalised adult recreational cannabis. Adults will be able to grow four plants at home to consume at home and not in public. 

Malta was the first country to legalise adult recreational cannabis in 2021. The country first legalised medical cannabis in 2018 before making the decision to go fully legal. 

Germany has the largest medical cannabis market in Europe after legalising it in 2017. In 2023 the program had 372,000 patients. In 2023, recreational cannabis was legalised through cannabis social clubs. Adults can grow 3 plants at home and carry up to 25g of cannabis with them in public. Consumption in public places is prohibited before 8pm and cannot take place within 200 meters of a school. 

The Czech Republic decriminalised cannabis possession of up to 10g in public and growing 5 plants at home in 2009. Medical Cannabis was legalised in 2013. 

Portugal decriminalised all drug possession in 2001 allowing possession of up to 25g of cannabis. They legalised medical cannabis in 2018.

Italy has largely decriminalised cannabis which is punishable with a fine for simple possession. In 2016 cannabis law changed to allow “cannabis light” containing under 1% THC to be sold in shops.  In 2019 a court ruled growing a small amount of cannabis is not a crime.  

Spain allows cannabis social clubs to operate under privacy laws. Cultivating a few plants is decriminalised. 

Croatia decriminalised cannabis in 2013 punishable by a fine. In 2015 the country legalised medical cannabis. In 2019 the law changed to allow hemp to be cultivated for medical purposes. 

Switzerland changed the law to allow cannabis with THC under 1% to be sold. The country also decriminalised up to 10g of cannabis in 2013 and has medical cannabis on prescription.

So, will cannabis gain legal status in the UK?

As of now, there are no indications that the UK will be following the footsteps of other European countries that have legalised recreational cannabis. The government has consistently stated that they have no plans to change cannabis policy. However, with the rising support for drug policy reform and the potential economic benefits of legalising cannabis, it is possible for a change in legislation to happen in the future.

The introduction of medical cannabis took many by surprise, so there is a possibility that recreational cannabis may also become legal in the UK. However, it will require a significant shift in the political realm, and the two major parties are currently unwilling to budge on their stance against drug policy reform. Until these changes do come into place, medical cannabis remains the only legal form of cannabis consumption in the UK.

Despite this, the growing public support for cannabis legalisation cannot be ignored. With several European countries already implementing changes in their cannabis policies, it is clear that the UK may eventually follow suit. It is important for individuals and organizations to continue advocating for the potential benefits of legalising cannabis, including empowering communities and small businesses. By working together and pushing for change, we can create a fairer society with fewer drug-related issues and increased economic prosperity.

Don't let the stigma surrounding medical cannabis prevent you from getting a suitable treatment. Releaf provides tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, all based on your medical cannabis prescription.

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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Editorial Team

Article written by the Releaf Editorial Team, a group of seasoned experts in cannabis healthcare, dedicated to enhancing awareness and accessibility in the field through their wealth of knowledge and experience.

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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