Cannabis Legislation UK

April 20, 2021

Is cannabis illegal? What are the laws for CBD in the UK? When did cannabis regulations start, and what is this drug’s future in Britain? Today’s guide on cannabis legislation explores all these questions and more!


History of Cannabis Legislation in the UK:

The UK has always been slow to adapt and adopt new laws, and regulations surrounding cannabis are no different. Over the last several decades, the rules regarding cannabis have not changed dramatically, with the substance remaining a classified drug with strict penalties attached since the first laws were made in 1928.


Cannabis was first made illegal in the UK after the second International Opium Convention in 1925. Fears were sparked by the United States during the first conference in 1912, and when worries were voiced again twelve years later the committee of governments decided to take action. Cannabis was ruled to be a narcotic, the use, sale, and distribution of the specific parts of the plant became restricted, and each country involved became responsible for controlling cannabis.


The substance has remained illegal since 1928, and the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971 established the system that deemed it a Class B drug in the UK, meaning people cannot possess, grow, distribute or sell cannabis. If found to be dealing, producing, or trafficking without a license, a penalty may be issued.

  • Possession: up to five years custody and/or unlimited fine
  • Production/Supply: up to fourteen years custody and/or an unlimited fine

Cannabis has been heavily regulated since the first push against narcotics in 1912 despite a lack of in depth studies demonstrating a clear widespread danger to the public. While the myths surrounding cannabis have slowly been debunked and research is becoming more available, the government continues to take a hard stance against the substance.


Cannabis was recognized as a Class B drug until 2004 when public opinion and data presented the Labour Party the opportunity to transfer it to Class C. This removed the threat of prison time and arrest for cases involving only a small amount of cannabis, and attempted to refocus efforts on harder drugs. However, the shift was short lived, and cannabis was bumped back to Class B just four years later in 2008 despite the advice given by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs .


Current Cannabis Legislation in the UK:

The use of cannabis is highly restricted in the UK as it remains a Class B drug meaning there is a threat of arrest and/or fines if found in possession of the substance. Police have the right to enact Stop and Account action to ensure there is no suspicious activity occurring in an area, however they cannot perform a Stop and Search unless they have a valid reason (such as visible paraphernalia). If stopped, guidance recommends the person keep things conversational while asking the following questions:


  • On what grounds are they stopping you? What legal power are they using?
  • What are they looking for? What is the object of the search?
  • Who are they? Can you see their badge or warrant?
  • What is the station where they are registered? Are being detained or are you free to leave?

While legislation around cannabis has not made changes in leaps and bounds, the introduction of a new law in 2018 allowing expert doctors to prescribe the substance medically was a huge step forward. Not only did this cannabis legislation make it possible for patients to have alternative medicines discussed as a valid treatment option, there is no limit to the type of condition that may be prescribed cannabis.


While the rules around cannabis prescriptions are still not fully accessible, with a registered specialist doctor required as well as the patient evidencing an “unmet special clinical need that cannot be met by licensed products”, the step is a positive one. However, more change is needed as research shows that in the years following the new cannabis legislation in the UK only 400 private and two NHS prescriptions have been issued.


While medical cannabis is suffering a slow roll-out, the 2018 law has has a sweeping effect in other industries interested in providing products for the public. CBD, or cannabidiol, is classed as a legal substance as long as it is derived from industrial-grade hemp with EU-approval and it has 0.3% or less THC. It has seen a huge surge in popularity since 2017, with the number of consumers doubling in just one year, and the potential has been increasing ever since.


2019 YouGov poll shows that 62% of adults are aware of CBD products and over one in ten has actually bought one. As time goes on, this number continues to grow, with the industry worth around £300 million and looking to triple in the next five years. In fact, with the population becoming more anxious and struggling to cope since Covid-19 and the UK-wide lock down, CBD is now estimated to have over 8 million users in Britain.


Consumers can now find a wide variety of forms of CBD, including coffee, tea, oil, creams, capsules, tinctures, gummies, vapes, skincare, and even chocolate. The widespread availability and use of CBD has certainly made cannabis legislation much more likely to change, especially as the rapidly growing market is not as strictly regulated since the laws have not yet caught up to the industry.


In fact, 2019 introduced new laws regarding CBD edibles, classing such items as ‘novel food’ which require authorization before heading to market. As the FSA states, “This is the only route to compliance for these CBD products” and applicants must register each individual product separately. Existing stock is also affected, and businesses must adhere by the cut off date of March 31st, 2021 or be removed from shelves.


Future of Cannabis Legislation in the UK:

As of now, there is a lot of grey area and unmet needs when it comes to cannabis laws in the UK. The NHS continues to only advocate for medical use under three strict criteria (in cases of rare and severe epilepsy, to aid multiple sclerosis, or to help with the effects of chemotherapy) which makes it incredibly difficult to get a prescription through legal routes. CBD products are now found in high street shops and online, yet marketing is inconsistent and dosages are not scrutinized leaving the public uncertain. Even the possession and production of cannabis is slowly becoming more normalized by local police departments as budget cuts lead to officials prioritizing more serious concerns.


With the market for cannabis and cannabis based products growing steadily, the future of legislation in the UK becomes more certain. Not only do studies show the economy could greatly benefit from the legalization of cannabis, but the UK has the potential to be a hub for innovation and expertise.


Advocates for legalization of cannabis in the UK often highlight the economic and medicinal benefits of decriminalising the substance, however another important factor is safety. A lack of legislation or a blanket ban of cannabis makes it difficult to standardize messaging, dosages, and studies, and as many professionals point out, this is part of the problem. Without reducing the restrictions on cannabis, the industry cannot begin to produce unbiased data or enforce rules about labelling products.


If the future of cannabis in the UK is heading where the market predicts, new legislation will need to be discussed, and soon.

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