Why was cannabis made illegal in the UK?

August 11, 2023

Part 1 – The seeds of prohibition

In the midst of the UK’s bustling streets, filled with the aroma of fish and chips, a whisper of controversy often lingers in the air. This whisper, dear readers, is all about cannabis. To understand the current state of affairs, one must first delve into the misty annals of history and uncover the roots of cannabis prohibition in the UK.

The story begins not on the cobblestone streets of London, but in the far reaches of the British Empire. Cannabis made its debut in the UK through the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, established by the colonial administration in 1893. The commission’s role was to study the cultivation of cannabis in India and its use in traditional medicines, which goes to show, our relationship with the green lady dates back over a century!

For the longest time, cannabis was a non-issue in the UK. It was just one of many exotic imports from the colonies, with the British public largely oblivious to its existence. Things began to take a turn in the early 20th century, thanks to global politics.

In 1925, the UK signed the Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control, which aimed to combat the recreational use of drugs. The treaty required signatories to regulate cannabis, among other substances. However, it wasn’t until 1928 that the UK added cannabis to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920. This move placed our dear green friend alongside opiates and cocaine, marking the beginning of cannabis prohibition in the UK.

The twist here is that this legislative move wasn’t driven by a wave of cannabis-induced mayhem on the streets of Britain. Instead, it was more a result of political pressure and international diplomacy. After all, who wants to be the party pooper at a global convention?

With cannabis now officially classified as a dangerous drug, the stage was set for a tumultuous relationship between the Brits and the green plant. Little did they know that this was just the start of a long and winding journey.

Part 2 – The swinging sixties and the storm of controversy

As the UK emerged from the shadow of World War II, the country was swept up in social and cultural change. The Swinging Sixties ushered in a new era of liberation, revolution, and experimentation, and cannabis was soon caught up in the whirlwind.

Influenced by the hippie culture across the pond in America, cannabis use began to creep into the UK’s youth culture. This wasn’t met with peace and love from the authorities, though. In 1964, a police raid on the home of society osteopath Stephen Ward, during the infamous Profumo Affair, led to the discovery of cannabis. This threw the plant squarely into the spotlight, sparking widespread controversy and sensational headlines.

As cannabis use continued to grow, the government took notice and responded with a knee-jerk reaction. The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1965 was passed, making the possession of cannabis illegal for the first time. This wasn’t exactly a ‘welcome to the party’ moment for cannabis enthusiasts. The Beatles weren’t too pleased either, I can imagine.

The government’s hardline stance continued into the next decade with the passage of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. This piece of legislation classified drugs into three categories, or ‘schedules,’ based on their perceived medical value and potential for harm. Guess where cannabis ended up? That’s right, folks – it was listed as a Schedule 1 drug, indicating it had no therapeutic value and a high potential for abuse.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was a landmark moment in UK cannabis history. It not only solidified the legal framework for cannabis prohibition but also paved the way for the stringent drug laws the country has today. It was at this point that cannabis found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As the 1970s rolled on, the conversation around cannabis began to shift from just law enforcement to public health. The UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was established in 1973 to keep the government informed about the hazards of drug misuse. However, despite some early suggestions from the council that penalties for cannabis possession be reduced, little progress was made.

As we leave the 1970s behind, we find ourselves in a country where cannabis use is becoming more widespread, yet the legal and social penalties are more severe than ever.

Part 3 – The Turbulent 80s, 90s and beyond

Ah, the 80s and 90s. A time of neon leg warmers, discmans, and the Spice Girls. But, it was also a period of stark contradictions for cannabis.

Despite public interest in cannabis growing, the government doubled down on its stance. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in power from 1979 to 1990, waged a fierce war on drugs. During her tenure, arrests for cannabis possession soared, giving a whole new meaning to “Thatcher’s Britain.”

While Iron Lady’s government hardened its stance, across the pond in the U.S., the winds of change began to rustle the leaves of the cannabis plant. California passed a proposition allowing for medical cannabis use in 1996, giving the cannabis world a glimpse of what could be possible.

However, the UK held firm. In 1997, under Tony Blair’s New Labour government, Home Secretary Jack Straw described cannabis as “a gateway drug” and vowed to continue the fight against it. It seemed as though the door to cannabis reform had been firmly shut and locked.

But remember, dear reader, the UK is the land of unpredictability (just ask anyone who’s tried to predict the weather). Change was on the horizon.

In the early 2000s, the conversation around cannabis underwent a seismic shift. Public opinion began to sway towards a softer stance on cannabis, with a 2002 poll indicating that 51% of UK citizens supported cannabis decriminalisation. Riding this wave of changing public sentiment, the government downgraded cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004, resulting in softer penalties for possession.

However, much like British summers, this period of cannabis leniency was short-lived. By 2009, amid concerns about the mental health impacts of high-strength “skunk” cannabis, the government reverted cannabis to a Class B drug. This move marked yet another chapter in the UK’s convoluted relationship with the green plant.

As we prepare to venture into the 21st century, the UK’s stance on cannabis remains an intricate tapestry of regulation, controversy, and hope.

Part 4 – The dawn of medical cannabis and hope

As the UK moved into the new millennium, there was a shift in the tectonic plates of the global cannabis landscape. Numerous countries and states in the US began legalising or decriminalising cannabis for medical and even recreational use. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in the annals of cannabis history worldwide.

Back in the UK, the new millennium didn’t immediately usher in a wave of cannabis reform. But the seeds of change had been planted, and slowly but surely, they began to sprout.

The turning point came in 2018, in a sequence of events that was more dramatic than a season finale of Downton Abbey. The plight of two young epilepsy patients, Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, who relied on cannabis oil to control their seizures, made national headlines. When the Home Office confiscated Billy’s medicine at Heathrow Airport, public outcry ensued.

Faced with mounting pressure, the government performed a U-turn worthy of London’s congested roundabouts. In November 2018, they legalised medical cannabis, allowing specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis-derived medicinal products. It was a moment of victory for campaigners, a glimmer of hope in the hazy fog of prohibition.

However, in typical British fashion, this wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. Strict regulations made access to medical cannabis challenging for many patients. As of 2023, many are still struggling to acquire legal prescriptions, often due to a lack of robust clinical trials and lingering stigma around cannabis use.

On the recreational front, cannabis remains a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, with possession carrying a potential penalty of up to 5 years in prison. Still, change could be on the horizon. Political, public, and even police attitudes towards recreational cannabis use have softened over the years, with some police forces deprioritising cannabis possession as a low-level crime.

As we reach the end of this historical journey, the future of cannabis in the UK remains a question mark. What we can glean from history is that attitudes and laws around cannabis are not static – they are influenced by a myriad of factors, from global politics to public sentiment and scientific discovery.

From the signing of the Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control in 1925 to the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018, the history of cannabis prohibition in the UK is a winding journey filled with twists, turns, and even a few surprise roundabouts. It’s a testament to the enduring nature of the cannabis conversation, a conversation that we will continue to have into the foreseeable future.

Back to Blog