Is Weed Legal in the UK?

Can you smoke weed in the UK? How do you access medicinal marijuana in the United Kingdom? Find out in this article.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

As cannabis legalization spreads around the globe, it can be hard to keep up and know where weed is legal, and where it isn't. Though it's important to know these things before sparking up a joint in a foreign country, as you could end up breaking the law and getting yourself arrested.

That's why we're going to unpack the weed laws of the land, starting with the U.K.

In the United Kingdom, cannabis is the country's most widely used illegal drug, with nearly a third of adults aged 16 to 64 that have tried the drug at least once in their lives. Furthermore, approximately 1.4m British people consume cannabis in order to self-diagnose health conditions.

When it comes to weed use in the United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, illegal drugs are placed into three different categories, or classes – A, B or C. This means that if a drug is a class A in England, it's also a class A in Scotland.

Class A drugs include heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD. The penalty for possession of a Class A drug range from a fine up to seven years in prison. Class A drugs are said to be the most dangerous of the three categories.

Class B drugs include speed, ketamine, codeine, and cannabis.

Class C drugs include tranquilizers, valium, and anabolic steroids. Class C drugs are said to be the least dangerous of the three categories.

Interestingly, in 2004, the UK relaxed its weed laws, shifting the drug from class B to class C, which removed the potential of arrest for those found possessing the plant.

Though this was overturned in 2009 when cannabis was placed back in Class B.

Is Recreational Weed Legal in the UK?

The short answer is no, marijuana isn't legal for recreational use in the United Kingdom.

Cannabis' brief stint as a Class C drug meant that those caught possessing small amounts of weed would no longer face the risk of being arrested. The rescheduling was intended to shift police focus onto harsher drugs and more violent crimes.

There was certainly justification for wanting to redirect police focus away from cannabis, with cannabis possession being the number one drug offense each year.

According to a report by the Office for National Statistics, as of March 2014, possession of cannabis offenses accounted for 67% of all police recorded drug offenses in the UK – a number which has been relatively unchanged over the past decade.

However, only a few short years after enjoying Class C status, cannabis moved back to Class B in 2008 under the leadership of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, against the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Though it appears that many police didn't agree with the stricter scheduling of cannabis, and as a result, many police districts simply don't enforce many laws surrounding cannabis.

For example in 2015, County Durham police announced that they wouldn't target people who grow cannabis for personal consumption unless cannabis use was "blatant."

This was a view later shared by most other police counties, with data showing that almost every police force gave fewer cautions and prosecutions when it came to cannabis possession.

Norman Lamb, a British Liberal Democrat, has applauded the initiative by police to not focus on cannabis crimes, stating that "the fall in prosecutions and cautions for cannabis possession is a welcome trend and a victory for common sense."

Lamb continued to say that "the 'war on cannabis' unfairly stigmatizes and criminalizes young people who are doing no harm to others while tying up police resources which should be better used tackling harmful crimes."

As for whether or not weed will be made legal for recreational use, the government has previously stated that it has "no intentions to legalize cannabis" in the near future.

Though Lamb and others disagree, predicting that the United Kingdom will follow America's suit on cannabis legalization within the next decade.

Is Medical Marijuana Legal in the UK?

Medicinal marijuana is indeed legal in the United Kingdom, as long as it is prescribed by a registered specialist.

The legalization occurred in November 2018, following the high profile case of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell, who used cannabis oil to treat his severe epilepsy. Caldwell and his mother had to frequently travel to Canada and North America to source their cannabis oil until it was eventually confiscated at Heathrow airport upon their return home.

Shortly after, Billy was hospitalized as his epilepsy symptoms worsened. This prompted officials to prove Billy with a 20-day exemption from the cannabis ban to see if his condition would improve, which it did.

As a result, medicinal cannabis products became legal for prescription by professionals.

Though the UK has struggled to find its feet when it comes to the prescription of cannabis. To begin with, the first shipment of medical cannabis didn't arrive until February 2019, months after it was legalized.

Then, an NHS review revealed that doctors were still very uncertain when it came to the medicinal benefits of cannabis due to a lack of clinical trials.

And if doctors were willing to prescribe cannabis? Well, for some patients it meant that they would be looking at a £50,000 per year price tag for products like Sativex.

This combination of doctor hesitancy and high prices has since resulted in extremely low prescriptions for medicinal cannabis in the United Kingdom, with less than 160 prescriptions written in total.

Though despite the UK's staunch stance toward recreational marijuana use and it's struggling medicinal marijuana industry, a report from the United Nations found that the United Kingdom was actually the world's largest producer of legal cannabis.

According to the UN's International Narcotics Control Board, the UK accounted for nearly 45% of the world's total cannabis production, totalling ninety-five tonnes of marijuana produced in 2016 for medicinal and scientific use in the UK alone.

And not only that, but the UK is the home of GW Pharmaceuticals, one of the most groundbreaking biopharma companies in the cannabis space.

GW Pharmaceuticals created Sativex in 2014, a cannabinoid drug designed as a treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) which was the first cannabis derivative to receive market approval in any country.

And in 2018, the company came out with Epidiolex, which remains the only cannabis drug currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Epidiolex is used to treat epilepsy.

Is CBD Legal in the UK?

CBD, or Cannabidiol, is a compound found within the cannabis plant that contains many of the medicinal benefits of weed, without the psychoactive effects of THC – Tetrahydrocannabinol.

The good news is that CBD is completely legal in the UK, "provided it has been derived from an industrial hemp strain that is EU-approved."

CBD has become a craze across numerous industries such as cosmetics, nutraceuticals, pet products, athletic supplements, beverages and more. In the UK, as long as there is no THC in the CBD product, it is entirely legal, with Market research predicting the UK CBD industry will reach £1B per annum by 2025.

As for the future, it is uncertain what is in store for the United Kingdom when it comes to weed laws.

In Australia, many of the same hurdles arose surrounding medicinal marijuana, which led to a similar lack of prescriptions to the UK. However, the changes only came after State governments amended their patient access processes to make it easier for doctors to write prescriptions.

Similarly in the UK, there may need to be legislative change before the ball can truly begin rolling on medicinal marijuana.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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