Cannabis in the United Kingdom

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Industrial hemp farm outside Southminster

Cannabis in the United Kingdom is widely used as an illegal drug, while other strains lower in THC (commonly called hemp) have been used industrially for over a thousand years for fibre, oil, and seeds.

Cannabis has been restricted as a drug in the United Kingdom since 1928, though its usage as a recreational drug was limited until the 1960s, when increasing popularity led to stricter 1971 classification. Since the end of the twentieth century, there has been rising interest in cannabis-based medicine, and a number of advocacy groups have pressed the government to reform its cannabis drug policies.


The Mary Rose needed tons of hemp

Hemp fibre[edit]

The oldest evidence of cannabis in Britain was from some seeds found in a well in York;[1] seeds found at Micklegate were associated with a 10th-century Viking settlement.[2] Since it appears to have been mostly grown around the coastal areas it suggests the main reason for cultivating it was as a source of vegetable fibre which was stronger and more durable than stinging nettle or flax. This makes it ideal for making into cordage, ropes, fishing nets and canvas.[3] [4]

With hempen ropes being fundamental to the success of the English Navy, King Henry VIII in 1533 mandated that landowners grown allotments of hemp; Elizabeth I later increased those quotas, and the penalties for failing to meet them.[5] As fibre became more available and the growing of hemp became more widespread, people began to find many other uses for the crop. It became a very important part of the British economy. Eventually, demand had expanded to the point that the demand for more fibre was part of the driving force to colonise new lands. Thanks to its hardiness and ease of cultivation, it became an ideal crop to grow in the new British colonies. Moreover, the naval ships built to protect the new colonies and those built to bring the hemp back, also increased demand, as every two years or so much of their two hundred tonnes of ropes and sail cloth had to be renewed.[6]

Cannabis drugs[edit]

Cannabis gained new attention in the Western medical world at the introduction of Irish physician William Brooke O'Shaughnessy, who had studied the drug while working as a medical officer in Bengal with the East India Company, and brought a quantity of cannabis with him on his return to Britain in 1842.[7]

Use of psychoactive cannabis was already prevalent in some of the new territories that Britain added to its empire, including South Asia and Southern Africa. Cannabis as a drug also spread slowly in other parts of the Empire; cannabis was introduced to Jamaica in the 1850s–1860s by indentured servants imported from India during British rule of both nations; many of the terms used in cannabis culture in Jamaica are based on Indian terms, including the term ganja.[8][9][10]


Cannabis prohibition began earlier in Britain's colonies than in Britain itself; attempts at criminalising cannabis in British India were made, and mooted, in 1838, 1871, and 1877.[11] In 1894 the British Indian Hemp Drugs Commission judged that "little injury" was caused to society by the use of cannabis. Cannabis was banned in Mauritius in 1840,[12] Singapore in 1870,[13] Jamaica in 1913,[14] East Africa Protectorate in 1914,[15] and in Sierra Leone in 1920.[16] In 1922, South Africa banned cannabis, and appealed to the League of Nations to include cannabis among prohibited drugs in its upcoming convention.[17][18]

In Britain itself, in 1928 in accordance with the 1925 International Opium Convention, the United Kingdom first prohibited cannabis as a drug, adding cannabis as an addendum to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920.[19][20]

Cannabis remained a fringe issue in the British public consciousness through the Interwar years and beyond, associated with society's margins: "coloured seamen of the East End and clubs frequented by Negro theatrical performers".[21] This perception was strained by a 1950 police raid on Club Eleven in Soho which recovered cannabis and cocaine, and led to the arrest of several young white British men.[22][21] With the changing youth and drug cultures globally, cannabis arrests increased dramatically in the UK: "from 235 in 1960 to 4,683 by the end of the decade, principally involving white middle class youths with no previous convictions".[23] By 1973, marijuana possession convictions in the UK had reached 11,111 annually.[24]

With the passage of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, cannabis was listed as a "Class B" drug. It remained Class B, except for the 2004–2009 period where it was classified as Class C, a less-harmful category, before being moved back to B.[25][26][27]


Recreational drug[edit]

Cannabis is widely used throughout the United Kingdom, by people of all ages and from all socio-economic backgrounds.[28][29]

Cannabis is at times linked to young people beginning to smoke tobacco as cannabis is often smoked with tobacco in the United Kingdom, unlike in many other parts of the world. As well as the use of tobacco when smoking cannabis, as a spliff, many people in Britain use a "roach card". As the option of vaporisation becomes more readily available, and as the market for hashish is replaced by herbal cannabis grown in the UK which can be smoked pure in a joint, this association of mixing cannabis with tobacco is becoming weaker. The higher relative price of cannabis compared to the rest of the world remains the most likely explanation for the mixing of cannabis with tobacco, (although many users do this purely to ensure the "joint" smokes correctly, and to prevent it from going out).

Industrial cannabis[edit]

Since 1993 the Home Office has been granting licences for the purposes of cultivating and processing cannabis. The UK government now provides free business advice and support services for growers and processors of cannabis for fibre. They can also issue licences for importing fibre in the form of hemp from abroad.[30] The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) provides help and advice with obtaining financial assistance via the Single Payment Scheme. In England further funding may be available from Rural Development Programme for England.

Medicinal cannabis[edit]

Apart from a synthetic cannabinoid called Nabilone, the only cannabis-based medicine licensed for medical prescription in the UK is Sativex. This medication can be prescribed by a doctor to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cytotoxic chemotherapy;[citation needed] the latter is indicated only for the treatment of spasticity caused by the degenerative, incurable and rare neurological-condition multiple sclerosis.[31] For other indications approval needs to be first sought from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. EU residents prescribed medical products containing cannabis are permitted to be in possession of cannabis whilst freely travelling throughout the United Kingdom. Although it is possible to use all kinds of cannabis for medicinal purposes, some are more appropriate for specific conditions than others.[32] However, this does not apply to UK-resident patients, who may not travel to the UK in possession of medicinal cannabis even if they managed to acquire a prescription in a country where it is legal.[33]

On 18 June 2018, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he backed the use of medicinal cannabis oil after an emergency license was granted to a child with severe epilepsy who had previously had his medication confiscated.[34]

Cayman Islands[edit]

In 2016, the governor of the British Overseas Territory of the Cayman Islands approved a change to the Misuse of Drugs Law to allow the importation and use of CBD oil for medical purposes.[35]

Animal feed[edit]

Mice, rats and fowl are all known to like cannabis seed and it is a favoured food amongst some British pigeon fanciers. The linnet's fondness of the cannabis seed has earned it the Latin species name of cannabina. By and large, cannabis seed is too expensive to be used as general feed stock but once the oil has been pressed out the remaining seed cake is still nutritious.

The plant itself has not been used as fodder as too much makes animals sicken, and due to its unpleasant taste they will not eat it unless there is no other food available. The soft core of the cannabis plant which remains after the fibres are removed provides good animal bedding which can absorb more moisture than either straw or wood shavings.[36]

Boiled cannabis seed is frequently used by British sport fishermen.[37]


According to the Home Office, "It remains illegal for UK residents to possess cannabis in any form".[33] Giving evidence to 1997–98 parliamentary select committee hearings, the British Medical Association (BMA) said that users of cannabis for medical purposes should be aware of the risks, should enroll for clinical trials, and should talk to their doctors about new alternative treatments; but the BMA did not advise them to stop.[38]

Cannabis is illegal to possess, grow, distribute or sell in the UK.[39] It is a Class B drug, with penalties for unlicensed dealing, unlicensed production and unlicensed trafficking of up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.[39] The maximum penalty for possession of cannabis is five years in prison and an unlimited fine.[39] A "Cannabis warning" can be issued for small amounts of cannabis (generally less than 1 ounce of herbal cannabis, or a slightly higher quantity of hashish) if it is found to be for personal use. This entails the police keeping a record, albeit one which carries no fine and does not show up on standard DBS Check. From 2004 to 2009 it was a Class C drug.[40]

In the survey-year ending March 2014, possession of cannabis offences accounted for 67% of all police recorded drug offences in the UK.[41]

In 2015, County Durham police announced that they will no longer be targeting people who grow cannabis for personal consumption unless they are being "blatant". Derbyshire, Dorset and Surrey police announced that they will also be implementing similar schemes. The move is in response to significant budget cuts, which means police forces are having to prioritise more pressing areas.[42]

Advocacy for law reform[edit]

As psychotropic drugs in general are very widely available despite their prohibition, a number of organisations have been set up with the aim of reforming the law on these unregulated substances.

The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, when serving in opposition, sat on the Select Committee on Home Affairs and voted to call on the Government to "initiate a discussion" within the UN about "alternative ways — including the possibility of legalisation and regulation — to tackle the global drugs dilemma".[47]

In June 2010, it was revealed that the Home Office had been avoiding complying with the FOI request "to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base" that its current drug policy had.[48][49][50]

In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy backed by Richard Branson and Judi Dench called for a review.[51] The Home Office response on behalf of the Prime Minister was: "We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs (sic) are illegal because they are harmful — they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities".[51]

In 2012, a panel of MPs, as well as deputy prime-minister Nick Clegg, recommended that drug policy be reformed, as the current policy does not adequately deal with the problem. David Cameron rejected the idea, conflicting with comments he made in 2005 while competing for Conservative Party Leadership.[52]

In 2015, James Richard Owen, an economics student at Aberystwyth University, started a petition on the UK Government's official petitions website calling for the legalisation of the cultivation, sale and use of cannabis; As of 28 September 2015 it had gathered 218,995 signatures, far in excess of the 100,000 needed for it to be considered for debate in Parliament. Parliament debated this petition on 12 October 2015.[53]

In March 2016, the Liberal Democrats became the first major political party in the UK to support the legalisation of cannabis.[54][55][56]

British Overseas Territories[edit]

See also[edit]


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