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How Close is the United Kingdom to Legalizing Cannabis?

November 3, 2015

Residents of the United Kingdom have been watching from afar as legalization sweeps across the globe. Uruguay legalized cannabis, the United States followed suit in a piecemeal fashion, and now Canada’s new Prime Minister has made it all but certain that they will be next to legalize. With progress happening elsewhere in the world, where does the United Kingdom stand on ending cannabis prohibition?


A Tumultuous Past

An interesting tidbit of information sheds light on the murky past of cannabis in the UK. Although it was deemed illegal in 1928 as an addition to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920, doctors were allowed to prescribe cannabis for various medical ailments until 1971. In 1971, the Misuse of Drugs Act created the Class A, B, and C classification systems as a means to control substances. Cannabis was now classified as a Class B drug along with amphetamines, with less severe penalties than those for harder drugs such as heroin or LSD.

There have been several proposals to reclassify cannabis as a Class C drug, but to no avail. As time progressed, the number of cannabis related arrests skyrocketed – in 1945, there were just four cannabis prosecutions, but by 1973, there were more than 14,000. The numbers increase exponentially from there to 20,746 in 1984 and, a decade later in 1994, the figure more than doubled to 72,392 cannabis arrests.

In the meantime, mainstream attitudes are shifting towards embracing cannabis in the United Kingdom. For a brief period between 2004 and 2009, cannabis was classified to be Class C, meaning that it would carry no criminal penalties and was considered less harmful than the drugs categorized in Class B. However, the home secretary Jacqui Smith returned cannabis to a Class B drug after then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned of stronger, “skunk” cannabis that dominated the black market.


Petitioning for Change

A petition started by James Richard Owen to “make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal” has been circulating, having already received more than 227,000 signatures to date. By law, any petition that accumulates more than 100,000 signatures must be reviewed by Parliament. After some reluctance, the members of Parliament conducted their debate on October 12, 2015. The debates were long and impassioned on both sides and included evidence of medicinal and therapeutic benefits, debating the effect of cannabis on individuals with mood disorders, and exploring the possible revenue from a legal market. Each argument was laid out on the table, but the real champion here was Labour MP Paul Flynn, who made a very convincing case for ending the War on Drugs before the court adjourned:

"Prohibition increases drugs use, harm and crime. It builds empires of criminals as the alcohol prohibition did in America in the twenties.

"The good news is that the world has recognised the futility, waste and cruelty of prohibition.

"The criminal, irresponsible black market is being replaced by decriminalised regulated markets that can reduce drugs harm and use and liberate the sick to use the world's most ancient medicine.

"The bad news is that UK has the worst of all worlds. We waste billions on arresting and imprisoning cannabis users for a taking a substance that is less harmful than alcohol."

As citizens began to ponder the possibility of legalization, the government quietly investigated the opportunity as well. A leaked Treasury study ordered by the Liberal Party examined the financial aspects of a legal cannabis market, with 216 tons of cannabis smoked in the UK last year and 2.2 million people between the ages of 16-59 who are thought to have used cannabis during that time creating a projection of a £1.25 billion market. That may be a bit of an overestimation, but even so, the report also found that legalization would save £200 million in court costs.


Trending Pro-Cannabis

While some sign petitions, others have a more unique approach to spreading the word for legalization. A group known as “Feed the Birds” have taken it upon themselves to distribute hemp seeds to the masses at least once a year on April 20th in Hyde Park in London. They’ve also been known to plant rogue gardens – little cannabis sprigs have been popping up in public planters and parks all over British cities.

According to an Ipsos poll conducted in 2013, more than 53 percent of respondents supported cannabis legalization or decriminalizing cannabis possession, and another 67 percent wanted a comprehensive review of all possible policy options – whether that means a legally regulated market or tougher penalties. With all of that support, why is the UK. government dragging their heels on this particular policy?

Paul Flynn believes that the phenomena is similar to the United States’ stubborn reluctance to address gun control policy, despite the overwhelming support for stricter gun laws. “Most of the rest of the world is baffled by our refusal to reform," said Flynn, and the UK has been left behind by many other seemingly more progressive countries, like the United States.

Luckily, Flynn has gained the support of the Liberal Democrats, who are creating an independent panel of experts to determine how a legalized market would work in the United Kingdom. The panel includes former government drug advisor professor David Nutt.

So will the United Kingdom be legalizing cannabis tomorrow? Probably not. The truth of legalization is that it’s a complicated and timely process that requires the utmost attention to detail. Could the UK legalize soon? Most definitely, but it depends on shifting attitudes and politicians who aren't afraid to advocate for change.

  • Alun Buffry

    of the uk cannabis campaign groups seem to be focussed on “medical
    cannabis”. Last year the Government Minister said after the cannabis
    debate sham in House of Commons, that the Government will look into
    research into more pharmaceutical cannabinoid products and that is what
    we’ll get.

    yes, sure, some groups include the right
    for “patients” to grow their own, which is not what the pharmaceutical
    business that pull the strings will want.

    these groups wake up to the fact that the distinction between “patients”
    that they think deserve permission to grow their own as opposed to
    non-patients, I personally doubt that true progress to full legalisation
    of cultivation and supply will be very fast.

    need to (must) wake up and demand equal law for all, acknowledgment by
    authority that we ALREADY have the Right to Private Life and practice of
    our beliefs, and fight for everyone, the campaign towards full
    legalisation will be slow.

    ex-cop and ex-chair of
    the so-called UK cannabis coalition Tom Lloyd, said, he wanted to take
    the easy route first, under the mistaken (IMO) belief that full
    legalisation will follow: the easy route being to ask for what has
    already been promised.

    we have had medical opiates
    for centuries yet law prohibits the cultivation of poppies to make
    opium; now we have the psychoactive substances act, many plants are
    illegal to grow, even for own use, irrespective of what the use is

  • scott

    Actually canibis was class c up until a few years ago. So even a couple of years ago legalisation was going in the complete opposite direction. Things have done a complete 180 in such a short period of time.

    • BhatMahn

      They were flirting with the idea of legalisation but wanted to dip their toes in the water first, and unfortunately a lot of them are too stupid to understand the difference between merely decriminalising/legalising as opposed to siezing control of the market with regulation and proper frameworks for its sale. The difference is night and day, but good luck getting politicians who have very little to no experience at all of the issues facing the common people.

  • shaun

    Cannabis will never legal in the uk. Not while our government gains from it staying illegal. They want us to die. They have spent the pension pot ten fold. Plus you can guarantee that they are taking back handers from pharmaceutical companies. How many people have to die terrible deaths for money. There just letting people suffer. They have admitted cannabis has good benefits. So what’s the hold up. Let us have cannabis.

    • Alex Cook

      From a numbers perspective I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted us to die. I’m not holding my breath by any means but I know for sure that cannabis genuinely helps me. The stronger strains available just means my money goes further, I’m not stupid. I use a pipe or bong, and never let my tolerance creep up. I don’t see how I’m a criminal, except for maybe supporting the lifestyles of criminals (who could maybe just be “farmers” if the government would recognise the industry). I have a little hope, because of the other side of the budgeting coin – they could stand to gain a whole lot from both the money saved from legal proceedings and policing costs, plus taxes from the new cannabis industry. It solves job problems, cheapens production (could be useful when we leave the EU) on all sorts of things from clothing, right the way to fuel.

      Bottom line, we’ve still got reasons to be hopeful 🙂

    • Aidan Parle



      Interesting, can you point out a few links for me to read more?
      Doc you may like:

  • Legalize it

  • Artur Saraiva

    Isn’t just the money the legal system could save but the time that could be used on real criminals instead.

    • Amy Loftus

      And after makin coppers redundant, the revenue earned will re-instae the lost personnel to takckle the ongoin problems on our streets

  • Aidan Parle

    Legalize weed as soon as possible.

    Alcohol is the drug that needs a whole lot more regulation than weed. I realize that sounds like a total cliche but it keeps popping up because it’s true. A huge amount of people have moved over from alcohol to weed, where total abstinence from alcohol has become realistically sustainable. I hope and pray that one day weed is legal on both a medicinal and recreational level. Fingers crossed folks

  • whatever name

    Legalize it NOW!

  • marcin

    hi sory but English this is not main first language .i used cannnabis for medical i epilepic person main fa..n leble ring for police – before in night using main canab and tell stop this is main medicine . police coming and i have fackn bann for 2 years .best option ewery weeks trip to Amsterdam .but uk have fac ..n brexit and wee have problems thank yu THERESA MaY


    Great article, I saw a short documentary by Condensed Cannabis that you may like. Let me know your thoughts.

  • Honestyfirst

    How can they expect us young people to vote for them when they never listen to what we have to say? We want to be able to have a smoke of a plant that has NO fatalities, does have health benefits, & is only dangerous due to it not being cultivated under controlled legal conditions. How many times must we ask politely? If you won’t listen to us, we shan’t listen to you. And that builds a very bleak society. You want to have war. That’s what we see. What’s so bad about cannabis when they spray all the crops with 70+ herbicides? Support fracking? Ignore green energy in favour of Nuclear waste? And WE are the ones damaging communities? You need to wake up. We’re not stupid. But this law IS.

    • Amy Loftus

      Totally agree m8. Ha the revenue earned would contribute to more police officers we laid of..

    • LightoWorld

      You said everything!!! We’re not stupid but the law is. People need to wake up otherwise war, fear and death will be all we have.

    • Stewart Hughes

      they have their own agenda of money making and global domination, they kill us with prescriptions, alcohol and cigaretes,, but canabis that is good ,,no,, is all ilegal,, plus kill us via mass imigration and a law system full of failures, we live in nfear..

  • Jamie Mcleod

    Make it legal now god dam 😂

  • Nanpantanman

    While it’s illegal the dope-heads shut themselves in, out of sight of the general public to indulge in their habit. With legalisation would come the sight of groups of these immoderates getting smashed in full view of everyone. Not a situation I relish. As for its ‘harmlessness’, I could tell you of three people I know, who devoted their money and time to the procurement and use of cannabis, and they have died early due to the knock-on effects of their addiction. It’s bad enough that our youngsters are allowed to get hooked on tobacco. Don’t let the situation arise where they can compound their folly by mixing the nicotine with something even more alluring.

    • karensherwin

      O O

      • John Harwood

        What gets youngsters into the world of drugs? They start by experimenting with cannabis, because “It’s harmless” they are told. I state this from experience, not from some fanciful notion. Many of my school friends began their drug habits by sneaking a cannabis joint in the bike-sheds at lunch-time. Believe me, I have plenty of experience of the drugs scene, because I attended many rock-concerts and parties where drug consumption was the norm, years ago. I was ‘matey’ with these people, and I still acquaint with many of them today. I’m a bit bemused by your statement: “Most of them are highly intelligent and are business owners”… Not round here, they ain’t. And you say they don’t go out due to smoking bans… What’s to stop them smoking their joints while they’re outside, as the tobacco-smokers do? I suggest you go into your town or city on a weekend evening and just smell the air… I expect you know what cannabis smoke smells like. And you say you have never seen anyone ‘out of their head’ on cannabis? You are not really looking, are you? I
        see nothing but specious reasoning in your arguments, probably caused by your desire to legalise a dangerous drug, whose principal effect is to alter the perception of its users and lower inhibitions. Not the sort of reasoning appropriate in such an emotive argument.

        • Clash

          you sound like a very upset man. You don’t need to be in any type of “group” to see people enjoying the herb. The stigma with the so called “groups” has long gone. People through all walks of life enjoy the herb daily. Over 3million+ people in the uk enjoy it day in, day out. You don’t see all those people kicking up a fuss and causing riots do you? na didn’t think so.

          It is not a DANGEROUS drug. It is only dangerous to undeveloped brains of the youth. With age restrictions and tight regulations this can be dealt with. With the current state of the black market the drug will remain suspect due to criminals wanting to increase the weight of their yield with chemicals and other nasty stuff. The UK needs it legalised to have better control over it. As at the current moment in time they do not and god knows what is sprayed onto the magical herb.

    • Clash

      “they have died early due to the knock-on effects of their addiction” expand please…

  • karensherwin

    It is not a drug. It is a herb. A medicinal herb and cure for cancer and other diseases. Too many people have been criminalised for using it yet the UK government allow rogue/dangerous alcohol to be sold all over the UK which they tax and make lots of money out of. The alcohol is more damaging and dangerous than the cannabis and is readily available in supermarkets. The alcohol fuels violence and crime and costs the country in Courts costs and Policing, with criminal records ruining people’s lives and job prospects. Then, there is the stigma attached that people are druggies and that is a disgrace, for a professional working person who uses it. The cannabis is in the hands of Criminals who sell on the black market usually with no desire to work and users of Class A drugs. Not pleasant to deal with and will usually rob you or rip you off with something else that looks like it. They sell cheap synthetic rubbish to people who think it is the real stuff, calling it many different names, buying on line on the dark web cheap with no THC in. They do this to fuel their class A drug dealing and people who smoke it are getting ripped off and smoking dangerous rubbish. Take it out of the hands of the criminals and make it safe with the THC in it that people need and without the dangerous chemicals. Many professional people smoke it instead of having alcohol because of it’s therapeutic properties and for relaxation. In the 80’s and 90’s in London, we used to smoke it. They were the days when it was shared around socially at parties and rock concerts. Nowadays the young people are taking all sorts of dangerous stuff, like horse tranquilizers, etc. The problem is you can’t keep your eyes on the children 24/7 when they’re growing up and there will always be fatalities when kids are experimenting as they will with drugs that have not been made safe for them.

  • Jay

    Here in the UK the drugs companies cannot patent the plant…and they know that they will lose billions in lost sales to the NHS by a drug that has been used for thousands of years. All our doctors agree with this…I even mentioned it at a medical tribunal and the Doctor smiled….and I won. The police have stopped raiding small grows as it costs them more to prosecute you then they get in fines..and as already said alcohol does way more damage and kills millions..thus costing the NHS more….what a screwed up country we live in….and one more thing…look at what happened in the US about type 2 diabetes and the drugs companies pushing insulin at them, when all these people needed to do was change their diet!!!!!!!

  • Doug Armstrong Meyer

    make it legal save lives simple we should organize a march