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The movement to legalize marijuana is a global occurrence. People all over the world are pushing governments to make this controversial plant legal, and in some places, it’s actually working. Be it for medicinal or recreational use; governments are beginning to change their minds about the legal status of cannabis.
In the USA, medical marijuana can now be purchased in over half of states, plus Washington D.C. A few states also allow recreational use. Canada made a big stir when it legalized recreational cannabis nationwide for adults over the age of 21. Things like this are raising questions about whether other governments should follow suit.
A few countries in Europe are also relaxing their attitudes toward marijuana. Several allow medicinal marijuana use in some form, although the system is not quite the same as in America.
Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands have decriminalized personal use of marijuana, too.
So, what about the U.K.? As one of the more influential countries, the U.K.’s stance surely matters. But what is the legal status of cannabis in Great Britain?
What the Law Says: Is Cannabis Legal in the U.K.?
The U.K. – defined as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – has a single law on cannabis which applies to all of these territories. This is handy because it means that British residents don’t have to abide by four separate laws.
Drugs in the U.K. are classified by letter, depending on the perceived severity of the substance. Class A drugs, including things like cocaine, are the most serious and warrant the most penalties. Most drugs have retained the original status they were awarded in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
The government classifies cannabis as a Class B substance under this 1971 Act. It ranks alongside ketamine, codeine, and amphetamines. In 2004, it was briefly reclassified to the lesser status of Class C, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown reinstated its Class B classification in 2008. His actions were actually against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
As it stands, cannabis is illegal to grow, possess, and distribute in the U.K. Doing so can incur penalties and legal ramifications. However, law enforcement in the U.K. recognizes that cannabis crimes are not the most serious, and many U.K. citizens disagree with the plant’s harsh classification.
This is why some police forces have declared that they will not be targeting people consuming cannabis for personal use. Durham police force claimed that they would only target people using the drug if they were “blatant” or if there was a complaint. Authorities in Derbyshire, Dorset, and Surrey followed suit.
Technically, though, it is still illegal and perhaps not worth the risk.
What Happens if You Are Caught with Pot in the U.K.?
The Class B status of cannabis gives it specific penalties. Possession of a Class B substance can warrant up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine. Distribution can get you up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
Currently, many police forces turn a blind eye to ‘personal use.’ Although this isn’t defined, most consider it to be less than one ounce. If the police catch an individual using small amounts of marijuana, they will confiscate the substance and issue a warning. Although they record this warning, it will not show up on Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks or Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks.
The second time an individual is caught, police will issue a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND). The £90 fine must be paid within 21 days to avoid further action. You are allowed to contest this in court, but could end up paying more if you lose your case.
In the third incident, police can arrest and charge you. Convictions are more likely if you were caught smoking in a public place or if you are a repeat offender.
Driving Under the Influence
The government introduced the ‘three strikes’ policy above to take some of the pressure off law enforcement in the face of department cuts. It allows them to focus on more serious crimes – and perhaps rightfully so. However, the punishments are much less flexible if police find you driving under the influence.
If your driving is affected, the police will notice and can pull you over to administer a roadside testing kit to screen for weed. If you have pot in your system, repercussions are likely. In the event of a crash or injury, you are likely to face jail time.
Even though a lot of personal marijuana use goes unpunished in the U.K., it’s not really worth the risk of smoking it in public. A lot of people still disagree with marijuana use, and if someone issues a complaint, then you are likely to face police action.
Should the British Government Legalize Weed?
There has been a heated and lengthy debate surrounding cannabis legalization in the British media. People who strongly advocate against legal weed usually cite public health concerns about psychosis and schizophrenia.
According to a study in 2014, hospital admissions for cannabis-related psychosis were on the rise between 1999 and 2014. When marijuana was reclassified as a Class C drug, the number of admissions fell. When it became a Class B drug again, hospital admissions once again started to rise. Ian Hamilton, the author of this paper, did not conclude why this was the case, but it’s certainly interesting.
Some experts speculate that it might be to do with the difference between ‘skunk,’ and ‘cannabis.’ Skunk refers to extremely potent weed with a high THC content and almost no CBD to speak of. When cannabis is illegal and teenagers want to use it to impress their peers, chances are they’re getting their hands on skunk. The high THC content can have an adverse effect on the developing brain, leading to psychosis.
Now that other countries like Canada are legalizing weed, the portion of the population in favor of cannabis are finding their feet. When the cannabis industry is government-regulated, it is harder for young people to purchase marijuana on the black market. Plus, the quality of the herb improves, leaving less room for poor-quality skunk which might even contain chemicals.
In theory, this all works out on paper, but it’s definitely going to take many years to convince a conservative government to legalize weed. But what about medically? A study published in Health Affairs found that U.S. states which have legalized medical marijuana have saved up to $165.2 million per year on prescription drugs. With the British NHS suffering, surely there should be a turn toward medical marijuana?
Medical Marijuana Laws in Britain
In 2018, Great Britain finally decided to relax its stance on the therapeutic use of cannabis. The cases of two severely epileptic children took the media by storm, causing outrage that forced the government to act.
Billy Caldwell, 12, and Alfie Dingley, 6, were both being denied cannabis oils which were helping with their epilepsy. Other treatments had failed, and Billy even ended up hospitalized after the government confiscated his cannabis oil.
Enraged, the public started a campaign which eventually saw a review into the use of medical cannabis. The then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he supported the medical use of marijuana, and Home Secretary Sajid Javid then announced a review would take place. After his statement in July, the government followed through, and the new medical cannabis policy came into effect on November 1, 2018.
However, there is currently an issue regarding prescriptions. General practitioners cannot prescribe U.K. residents cannabis, and they must instead see a specialist doctor. And, as you probably guessed, there are virtually none of these specialist doctors to be found.
Furthermore, the government has currently only approved one cannabis-based drug. Patients may use Sativex to treat Multiple Sclerosis (M.S.), but this leaves a lot of the other conditions that medical cannabis could benefit in limbo. Since the law was passed, very few patients have managed to get medical prescriptions for cannabis, while Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell also have special licenses.
In case you were wondering, these cannabis medications are not provided on the NHS. They can reach extortionate prices, which is unfortunate for those who really need them.
Final Thoughts: The Future of Cannabis in the U.K.
Marijuana is still illegal in the U.K., although there is a lenient ‘three strikes’ policy for personal use. Some police departments might be stricter, though, so it is best not to risk cannabis use.
Medical marijuana is steadily becoming more widely accepted in Britain, but it is still not 100% legal. While marijuana-based medications have been legalized, Brits seem to be far away from actually getting a hold of prescriptions they need. Ideally, the government should act fast in order to put a policy in place, but it appears that they are currently pre-occupied with other political issues such as Brexit and knife crime.
For now, Brits can enjoy the fact that low-THC CBD products are legal. You can purchase these products online or in High Street stores with no legal repercussions, so that’s a plus at least.