With the recent splurge of cannabis products and the advances in cannabis laws in the UK, most people are left wondering whether weed is now legal in the UK. Countries like the USA have legalised medical marijuana in more than half the states, and a few other states also allow recreational use. Countries like Canada have chimed in by legalising the use of recreational cannabis nationwide for adults over the age of 21.
Such advancements have raised questions about whether the UK government will follow suit or if they did already and didn’t make it public, considering it is one of the more influential countries in the world.
For legal technicalities, the UK is defined as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The History of Weed Laws in the UK
Cannabis was first banned in the UK in 1928 but was still legal for medicinal purposes until 1971. In 1964, growing marijuana plants was also made illegal. The laws passed in 1971 under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 lists a litany of regulations that cover cannabis and other drugs.
In 2001, the Labour Party attempted to effectively decriminalise the drug by downgrading it to a Class C. The move meant penalties for personal production, use and possession of weed were reduced, and the sentences for supply would be drastically reduced. The move proved effective, but in 2007, then prime minister Gordon Brown moved cannabis back to Class B, where it has remained ever since. In doing this, the Prime Minister ignored what his own Council on the Misuse of Drugs had advised.
In March of 2016, the Liberal Democrats became the first major British political party to push for the legalisation of cannabis.
Medicinal Use of Marijuana in the UK
In 2018, Great Britain grudgingly legalised the medicinal use of cannabis and marijuana after highlighting a case of two children who were using cannabis oil with low THC content for severe epilepsy.
After police interference, it became a target of public outcry, and they had to return the medicine to the boy’s parents. The law prohibiting the use of weed for medical purposes became indefensible. Although the law on medical cannabis is working, it’s still widely criticised because the country relies almost entirely on imported cannabis and suffers constant shortages.
Current Law on Cannabis in the UK
Currently, weed remains illegal in the UK. The simple possession of cannabis with no intent to distribute is punishable by up to 5 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. If caught dealing, you could face up to 14 years in prison plus an unlimited fine.
Although the Misuse of Drug Act applies across the UK, Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland can differ in how they enforce the drug offences, including cannabis and the attitude towards cannabis and marijuana.
The Scottish National Party announced in September 2021 that it had reached an agreement with Scotland Police not to arrest people caught with a small amount of weed. This follows a report from 2019 that found that about 500 people arrested with cannabis by the Scottish police each month are released with a warning.
Nearly half the population of Scotland (47%) support the legalisation of weed, according to a Times Survey conducted in 2019. Like the rest of the UK, medicinal use of weed is allowed, and the first group of cannabis patients in Scotland received their prescriptions in 2021. The country’s first medical cannabis clinic was approved in March 2021.
Wales has made the most progress in legalising weed in the UK. In January 2019, the Welsh Parliament held an event that included a call from the North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones to decriminalise cannabis. The statement came prior to a decision by the North Wales Police to introduce a diversion scheme that would prevent the arrest of those caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis.
In 2018, politicians from the Welsh Nationalist Party referred to the war on drugs as an “Unmitigated failure” and voted to make decriminalisation part of the platform for the party. England and Wales have also registered reduced prosecutions for marijuana possession.
Northern Ireland is home to Billy Caldwell, a severely epileptic boy from County Tyrone. He made history in November 2020 as the first person to receive National Health Service-funded medical cannabis under the 2018 law. This was after a four-year struggle by the family to bring medicinal cannabis to treat his 100 seizures a day. The oil was seized at Heathrow Airport, and a legal battle followed.
Chances of the UK Legalising Weed?
Malta became the first European nation to legalise the recreational use of weed. In the UK, the legal cogs keep moving but ever so slowly. There is a growing realisation that something has to be done about the medical cannabis program that hasn’t seemed to work since it was effected years ago.
Beyond that, the laws surrounding smoking weed or the recreational use of weed aren’t a mainstream topic yet. Most of the conversation centres on decriminalisation, but no political party has pledged to legalise weed fully.
However, UK citizens have access to other cannabis-derived products like CBD and CBG, although under strict legal requirements. These products should only be harvested from approved strains of industrial hemp plants and must contain a 0.2% THC composition to be considered legal.
The UK seems to be at a standstill on the legalisation of weed with no goodwill from politicians or their political parties. However, the laws aren’t what they once were. And although little has changed, it’s a sign that the wheels are moving, although slowly and perhaps in future, the discussion around the legalisation of weed could become mainstream and trigger the legislature to make a move.