On 20 February 2016, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, took leave of his senses and called for an EU Referendum. The ensuing campaign between Leave and Remain was filled with bitterness and outright lies. On 23 June 2016, a slight majority of voters decided they had had enough of experts and decreed that Britain should leave the European Union, despite a multitude of warnings.
Much of the debate centered around immigration and ‘sovereignty,’ a notion that many Leave voters cited as a reason to exit the EU, despite having little idea of what it means. There was a belief that Britain was under the thumb of a dictatorial regime because it had so little choice over drafting EU laws. However, aside from holding a veto as a member, the UK is minimally impacted in areas such as public order, crime, and defense. The EU’s biggest impact on Britain is in areas such as trade and workers’ rights.
In any case, there has been a strong suggestion that the UK could potentially legalize marijuana once it is officially free from the EU, but is this really the case?
Britain’s Existing Marijuana Laws
The UK has a complicated relationship with marijuana. The herb has been restricted in Britain since 1928, when it was prohibited as an addition to the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act. Nevertheless, the drug’s popularity increased significantly during the 1960s. In 1960, only 235 people were arrested for a marijuana-related offense, but in 1969, almost 4,700 people were arrested for the same offense.
The increase in cannabis usage led to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which listed the herb as a Class B drug. Penalties for possession and sale increased markedly, and by 1973, over 11,000 people were arrested annually for marijuana use or sale. Cannabis was briefly reclassified as a Class C drug in 2004, but was restored to Class C status in 2009.
Despite the illegal status of weed in the country, the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of medical marijuana in the entire world! In 2015, Britain produced 42 tonnes of legal weed. In 2016, that figure has more than doubled to 95 tonnes. Over two tonnes were exported, a figure that makes up 67.7% of the global total!
Brexit aside, there has been a public debate about whether medical marijuana should be legalized in the United Kingdom. The cases of Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, two boys who suffer from severe epilepsy, gained national and international attention in 2018. In Billy’s case, his mother, Charlotte, was returning home from Canada with cannabis oil for her son. To her horror, it was confiscated at the airport.
Within days, Billy’s condition deteriorated to the point where his seizures threatened his life. Once Billy was rushed to the hospital, there was uproar. The boy’s mother appealed to British Prime Minister, Theresa May, to grant a special cannabis license so that her son could be treated. Eventually, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, relented and announced that cannabis oil would be made legally available to individuals with specific health problems, primarily epilepsy.
In December 2018, a handful of individuals were prescribed medical marijuana. For Carly Barton, who suffers from fibromyalgia and is in constant pain, cannabis could be a game changer. However, the National Health Service (NHS) does not fund medical marijuana, so she has to pay £2,500 for a three-month supply. Carly will be taking a gram a day, and if the NHS specialist doesn’t grant her a renewal, she will resort to being a criminal by buying it illegally, such is her need for the pain relief she claims to receive from weed.
Will Brexit Change Things?
Going back to the issue of sovereignty, it is assumed by many Leave voters (and some Remainers) that the EU has control of the domestic drug policies of its member states. In reality, the Treaty of Functioning, Article 168, states that the EU will complement the actions of member states when reducing damage related to drugs including prevention and information.
The EU’s authority only extends to serious drug crimes such as trafficking. Regarding possession and consumption on an individual basis, the EU has zero jurisdiction over the drug policies of the UK, Germany, Italy, France, or any of its current member states.
Those who claim the EU does, in fact, control domestic drug policies often erroneously point to a case in the Netherlands where it was decided that non-Dutch nationals should not be allowed in the legendary Coffee shops. It was claimed that EU equality laws overturned the decision of the Dutch courts. In actual fact, it was the Dutch government who overturned the law within a few months. It was unpopular and hadn’t even been implemented in a number of municipalities.
As we’ve already mentioned, all marijuana-related offenses in the UK are regulated by the Misuse of Drugs Act. If you are caught in possession of fewer than five grams of weed, you are given an informal verbal warning. A second offense of this nature comes with a fine of £80. A third offense leads to an arrest and a caution, and a fourth offense means a day in court with the possibility of a conviction remaining on your criminal record.
There are parts of the UK that are far stricter than others. For example, the police in Durham have given up on any pursuit of minor marijuana offenders, choosing to focus their dwindling resources elsewhere.
Marijuana laws and punishments are different throughout the EU. In other words, Brexit will NOT change Britain’s marijuana laws in itself. The UK Government will retain control of drug laws in the nation as it has always done. Although there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel, it is unlikely that marijuana will be legalized recreationally. Neither of the major parties are pro-marijuana. Also, the current UK Government is being propped up by the Northern Ireland DUP, a party that is vehemently anti-marijuana.
For instance, Parliament rejected a petition signed by 235,000 people who wanted a parliamentary debate about the legalization, or at least the decriminalization, of weed. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has always been an outspoken opponent of marijuana, and in 2012, she stated that it has no medical benefits, despite thousands of studies being available to contradict her.
According to May, the UK policy on drugs will remain focused on reducing demand, restricting supply, and assisting addicts in recovery. All three aspects of this plan have predictability been a complete failure, as seen in a report by the Adam Smith Institute which was published in 2016.
The report showed that almost two million people smoke cannabis in the UK. Individuals on a low income are far more likely to use it than someone on an above-average income. For instance, you are five times more likely to use weed earning £10,000 or less per annum, than if you earn over £50,000 a year.
The Best Hope for Cannabis May Lie in a Ruined Britain
It has become increasingly clear that Britain is headed towards a complete crisis in the years after Brexit is finalized. Even those who are anti-Europe and keen to leave acknowledge that the positive effects could take up to 50 years to come around! In the meantime, several important multinational corporations have suggested that they may close their businesses in Britain and move them overseas.
A no-deal Brexit would be a catastrophe, and it will take years, perhaps decades, for the UK to negotiate trade deals with other countries. Given Britain’s increasingly desperate situation, these deals will be conducted from an inherently disadvantageous position. If the likes of Nissan leave the UK, the economic impact will be devastating as the bottom rungs of society will be hit hardest.
Ironically, this is where an under-siege UK Government may turn to marijuana for assistance. According to a 2018 report by Health Poverty Action, introducing legal cannabis to the UK could add anywhere between £1 billion and £3.5 billion to the nation’s treasury. The benefits would be felt in the police and judicial areas with reduced costs, and in the NHS, which is in dire need of extra cash. Opening Colorado-style licensed marijuana stores would also create jobs, which are likely to be in short supply once Brexit hits Britain hard.
So, Will Brexit Result in Changed Marijuana Laws?
The act of leaving the European Union will do nothing to change the legal status of marijuana in the UK. The EU doesn’t have control over possession or sale of weed on a national level, so the UK Government is free to create and enforce whatever weed laws it chooses.
However, Brexit could hasten the legalization of weed if its impact is as calamitous as many people predict. If Britain loses tens of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds in EU subsidies, how will it make up for the shortfall? Its government could easily look at the changing public opinion surrounding weed and decide to legalize it. The result would be an economic boost that may help save the country from the worst ravages of a foolish and short-sighted decision.