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Under The Spotlight: Is Cannabis Legal in the UK?

uk cannabis
Written by Joseph Mcqueen

The view on cannabis within the UK is nothing short of confusing. No one can be blamed for not entirely understanding the legal situation, especially for those of you who don’t live there. However, for those of us that do, even we’re still trying to grapple with it. With Amsterdam’s coffee shops and Barcelona’s cannabis cafes leading the way in Europe’s drug progressiveness, the UK has most definitely been left behind. Or has it?

Whilst the UK are somewhat stagnant in their legal stance on marijuana, it isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, in the last few years, there have been some major landmark moments. So, is cannabis legal in the UK? Let’s find out.

Whether you’re talking about the US, UK, or anywhere else in the world, cannabis legislation is confusing. To learn about laws across the globe, make sure to subscribe to The Medical Cannabis Weekly Newsletter, your hub for all things cannabis-related.

What is the United Kingdom?

For those of you that aren’t aware, the United Kingdom is made up of the countries England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Republic of Ireland is a separate entity with its own laws and government. The Prime Minister of the UK is Boris Johnson who, if you don’t know already, has probably never smoked a joint in his life. Or if he has, he definitely won’t admit it.

UK Cannabis Culture

Since leaving the European Union in 2020, the UK and, more importantly the Conservative Party in Britain, have slightly tarnished their global reputation. Therefore, it is not surprising that the world isn’t necessarily looking to the United Kingdom for any wise words on cannabis laws. However, the truth is that around 30% of 16-25 year olds in the UK have used cannabis at least once in their lifetime. Furthermore, it is definitely not hard to find some high-percentage THC cannabis within the UK if you are looking for it.

Like many countries, cannabis is a crucial part of society…it’s just not completely legal yet. Cannabis is a big part of the culture in the UK. Grime, which is a genre of electronic music, was founded in London in the 2000s. Many Grime artists – such as Skepta, Stomzy, Wiley – all often call for the legalization of cannabis. Like American Jazz Music in the 20’s, Grime music and cannabis go hand in hand. In addition, Hyde Park, a park in central London, is home to many cannabis-lovers.

The cannabis holiday – 4/20 – in Hyde Park is famous for its bustling atmosphere, great music and political demonstration. On a grass-roots level, the United Kingdom is a cannabis-loving place. However, the question is, to what extent does the government agree?

Medicinal Cannabis

Cannabis and all parts of the cannabis plant were deemed illegal in the UK up until 2018; that is when the saving grace for cannabis legalization in the UK came along. Before this, cannabis was seen as a Class B drug, which is the second highest and most serious class. Class B also includes the likes of Ketamine and Speed. However, in 2018, the UK government legalized certain types of medical cannabis. The Conservative Party said:

Having been moved by heartbreaking cases involving sick children, it was important to me that we took swift action to help those who can benefit from medicinal cannabis. We have now delivered on our promise and specialist doctors will have the option to prescribe these products where there is a real need.”

To be specific, they legalized CBD based products. CBD is one of the most prominent cannabinoids within cannabis. The other prominent cannabinoid is THC – known for giving the common ‘high’ effect – which still remains very much illegal. Only cannabis products that contain less than 0.2% THC are purchasable legally in the UK.

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Why is Medicinal Cannabis Legal?

A reasonable question to ask, considering the UK and the Tory government don’t have much faith in cannabis and haven’t for a long long time, Is why have they suddenly decided to legalize it for medicinal purposes. Well, the Billy Caldwell case is a good place to start. Billy Caldwell was a 12-year-old boy who suffered from severe epilepsy and needed a specific type of CBD oil in order to aid his symptoms. Before the treatment, Billy suffered from 100 epileptic seizures a day, but after the treatment, he hadn’t had a seizure in 300 days.

His mother was forced to travel as far as Canada in order to find this clinically-trialled product, however, when she arrived at London Heathrow airport, this medication was confiscated from her. In consequence, Billy was rushed to hospital and almost died. After this case, the UK government was forced to reevaluate their stance on medical cannabis. Since 2018, CBD products have boomed within the UK and the United Kingdom became the biggest producer of medical cannabis in the world. CBD coffees, CBD oils and CBD edibles are now easily purchasable in high street shops.

The Cancard

Whilst medical cannabis is technically legal now, this does not mean it’s easy to get ahold of. In fact, the National Health Service in the UK have not fully backed the use of cannabis as treatment due to the fact that they believe the research to be inconclusive. 

Therefore, people have been forced to find private doctors in order to get prescribed cannabis, which costs extortionate amounts. Some have paid as much as £50,000 a year for a prescription. For those people who do not have £50,000 a year to spare, which is the majority, they’ve been forced to continue finding cannabis through illegal means; the dark web or street dealers. The issue with this, is that if police find these people with cannabis in their possession, they are legally able to prosecute them; regardless of the fact it may be for medical purposes. Without an actual prescription, there is no proof of legitimacy. This is where the Cancard comes in. 

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In 2020, Carly Barton – an activist and medical cannabis user – took action and created the Cancard. The Cancard is a form of identity for those who require medical cannabis but cannot afford the prescription. It is proof of needing medical cannabis. With this card, people no longer have to fear being unfairly prosecuted for their cannabis medication. According to Cancard statistics, 1.1 million medical cannabis users a year worry about being approached by police due to a lack of prescription. Carly Barton said:

“We all know that cases where patients have proved legitimate medicinal use are unlikely to make it to court, and if they do, these cases are consistently dropped. …This is an opportunity to create a benchmark for change. Together we can unofficially decriminalise, for those most vulnerable, as we greatly reduce the possibility of a obtaining a conviction”

Therefore, through people like Billy Caldwell’s mother and activist Carly Barton, slow legal change is occurring throughout the UK regarding cannabis. 

Recreational Cannabis

Whilst CBD products and medical cannabis containing CBD are becoming more accepted in the UK, recreational cannabis is very much illegal. Any cannabis product or bud containing more than 0.2% THC is against the law and can be prosecuted. To put this into perspective for you, a common percentage of THC in recreational cannabis is around 15-20% in buds or 40-60% in cannabis concentrates. As you can see, 0.2% doesn’t come close to even touching the surface. Oddly, within the UK, CBD flowers are also illegal, simply because they resemble the cannabis plant. Whilst they have less than 0.2% THC, they are still banned. Even America, which has 50 states of varying beliefs, seems to be more progressive than the little island of the United Kingdom.

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Every country handles drugs in a different way. In the UK, there is a Class system to categorise the harsher drugs from the less harsh. Any drug within the Class system is illegal. 

  • Class C – Class C includes drugs like: steroids, GHB and minor tranquillisers.
  • Class B – Class B includes drugs like: cannabis (high in THC), speed, ketamine and mephedrone. 
  • Class A – Class A includes drugs like: heroin, ecstasy, cocaine and LSD. 

Each class category is treated differently, with class A receiving the harsher penalties and C receiving the least. There was a time in 2004 when cannabis was moved to class C from class B, which meant cannabis-lovers would be free from the threat of prosecution. However, Prime Minister Gordon Brown returned it back to class B normality in 2008. 

The prosecutions for possession of cannabis can be anything from a warning, to a fine, to prison time. It depends on the amount you’re found to possess. It also depends on the specific police officer, as the drug laws are highly ambiguous. The ambiguity usually helps create a sense of fear. The law states that any amount of cannabis can lead to a £90 fine, or even some jail time. This will increase considerably if there is intent to supply.

Is Cannabis Legal in the UK? Conclusion

Is cannabis legal in the UK? The answer is both yes and no. If the cannabis plant and its elements are not all completely legal now, then when will they be? When will the UK step over their THC barrier? The current prime minister, Boris Johnson, said himself that he has ‘no intention of legalizing cannabis’. Even the Conservative Party’s main competition, the Labour party, have also said that they have no desire to relax drug laws. Within the UK’s two party system, it does not seem like any political change will occur to aid the cannabis legalization movement. Therefore, like activists are already doing, any change will have to come from the ground. The grass-root cannabis movement inside the UK will be the reason for full cannabis legalization… if it ever happens. 

What do you think? If you have any thoughts on the current cannabis situation in the UK, we’d love to hear from you, drop us a line in the comment section below. And remember to subscribe to The Medical Cannabis Weekly Newsletter for more articles like this one and exclusive deals on trending products. If you want to try the new hemp-derived exotic products, such as delta 8, delta 10 THC, THCO, THCV, HHC & THCP subscribe to the Delta 8 Weekly Newsletter.

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About the author

Joseph Mcqueen

Joseph is a cannabis journalist in the UK. His search and love for the truth in the cannabis industry is what drives him to write.