Across the globe, opinions on marijuana are changing. In America, where cannabis was once highly frowned upon, medical marijuana is now legal in the vast majority of the country, while many other counties are following suit. However, what is the future of cannabis in the UK?
Despite the drug being used for thousands of years across the globe, the United Kingdom remains highly prohibited. However, a recent announcement from British American Tobacco that it expects cannabis to become a key part of its future business model, coupled with the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announcing he plans to decriminalise the drug, the shoots of a major change are appearing.
What are the current cannabis laws in the UK?
While the United Kingdom is very progressive in some aspects, it remains quite behind other countries in its views on marijuana. As it stands, the plant is classified as a Class B drug, which means it is illegal to possess, grow, distribute, or sell cannabis anywhere in the UK.
Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, the use of cannabis was actually very popular across the UK for both medicinal and recreational use. In fact, the then Queen of England, Queen Victoria, was a regular smoker of the plant after being prescribed it by her physician! Countless poets, authors, and musicians of the time were reported to be using the drug, including Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.
Despite its huge popularity, the advancements of other medicinal treatments, such as the invention of aspirin, saw its use begin to decline and it was first made illegal in 1928. In 1971, the law was strengthened further when the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced and the Class B classification was announced,
Nowadays, someone who is caught with marijuana can be imprisoned for up to five years and face an unlimited fine. An individual who has been caught producing or supplying the drug could face a maximum of 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine. However, while it is illegal to smoke cannabis anywhere in the country, even your own home, it is a law that is often flouted. One recent study found that nearly 30% of Brits between the ages of 16 and 59 have smoked weed at least once in their lifetime.
In 2001, the UK government announced that it would be changing its approach to cannabis, with a range of trials introduced to see if it could be declassified. Following these studies and against growing public demand, marijuana was downgraded to a Class C category in 2004. However, this decision was reversed in 2009.
For those individuals who are caught with cannabis on their person that is less than an ounce, then the police are more likely to issue a warning or an on-the-spot fine. This means that there is not a criminal charge brought against them, and there will be no record of the incident.
Although the law on cannabis usage is clear, enforcement does change quite drastically depending on where in the country you might be. Recent studies found that while the nationwide levels of prosecutions for marijuana fell, certain areas saw a spike in cases, particularly in Cheshire. On the other side though, Durham and the West Midlands are actively trying to steer individuals away from the criminal justice system and into rehabilitation and awareness courses instead.
What about medical cannabis?
The law states that marijuana is not allowed to be smoked anywhere in the UK, and the plant is considered a controlled substance under the misuse of drugs legislation. However, certain aspects of the plant such as CBD, are allowed to be sold.
However, in November 2018, legislation on the use of medical cannabis was introduced. This allowed the substance to be prescribed to certain patients in unique situations, but even now, four years later, the number of people who have been prescribed medical cannabis remains incredibly low.
These new laws state that only doctors who are on the General Medical Council (GMC) specialist register are allowed to prescribe cannabis-related medicines. An update in 2019 saw the National Health Service (NHS) allowed to offer patients suffering from Dravet Syndrome and Lennox Gastuat with medical cannabis to help reduce the frequency and intensity of the seizures they experience.
That same year, further guidance was given by the National Institute for Health and Social Care Excellence on how it can help those patients experiencing chronic pain, epilepsy, and intractable nausea.
What is the general view of cannabis currently?
With nearly one in three people admitting they have tried the drug, attitudes to cannabis in the UK are quickly beginning to change. The 2021 Content Special: “OTC & Pharma” study revealed that 26% of those surveyed said they believed that cannabis and CBD is a good alternative to more traditional products, while 24% believed it should be completely decriminalized and just 19% said they want it to remain illegal.
There has also been an increase in the number of high profile individuals and political parties pushing for reform. Alongside the Mayor of London, the Liberal Democrat Party and Green Party have both stated that they support the legalization of marijuana in their most recent manifestos. Former Conservative Party leader William Hague has also publicly called for marijuana to become legal, stating that the idea it would make the nation drug addicts is ridiculous.
So will cannabis become legal in the UK?
It could be argued that the steps towards the legalization of marijuana in the UK have already begun with the introduction of medical cannabis. While this is still very uncommon, it is the first sign that there could be major reform on the horizon. The success of other countries will undoubtedly highlight the many benefits that can come from decriminalizing the drug.
The increasing popularity of CBD products is also a good indication of the changing attitude amongst the population. However, despite these increasingly more relaxed views, the official line from those in charge has yet to officially change. Although with the success from the likes of America, coupled with an increasing number of studies revealing the benefits of medicinal marijuana and its positive impact on the economy, this could soon change.
What would happen if the UK legalized marijuana?
While there are no concrete plans to decriminalize marijuana in the UK, there has been some extensive research carried out to understand what kind of impact it would have on the country. Estimates currently suggest that legalizing the use of cannabis would generate a huge income to the country’s economy, with estimates ranging anywhere from £1 billion to an incredible £3.5 billion.
In America, the legalization of cannabis and the resulting tax revenues have helped to transform the economy, providing massive income to each state. Recent estimates estimate that by 2024, it will be worth $31.1 billion annually. There is no reason to believe that the UK would not enjoy similar outcomes should it legalize the drug.
What about some of the other benefits that decriminalizing marijuana could bring?
Greater options for medical treatment
One of the biggest benefits that legalizing marijuana brings is that it helps to open up a much greater pool of treatment options for patients. There have been countless studies that show how marijuana can help to relieve pain and discomfort in those individuals living with chronic pain, alongside helping to ease the severity of fits from conditions such as epilepsy.
While the UK has already legalized the use of medical marijuana to treat certain illnesses, legalizing cannabis would let even more people benefit from it.
Decrease the prison population
Another major benefit that comes from legalizing marijuana is that it will significantly reduce the pressure on the criminal justice system. While certain police forces in the UK are already taking a lighter approach to those individuals who are caught with personal usage amounts, full decriminalization would take this to the next level.
Arresting and prosecuting individuals for cannabis possession is incredibly costly, costing the UK taxpayer millions of pounds every year. Not only that, but keeping the drug illegal creates a black market, seeing criminal gangs earning huge sums of money in dealing and distributing cannabis. These illicit profits then go into more serious crimes and offenses, perpetuating a harmful cycle.
Legalizing weed immediately removes these profits from criminal gangs, creating a safe and legal industry that benefits the entire country.
Boost the economy
As we have already mentioned, legalizing cannabis can transform the UK economy. With Brexit and the pandemic, the country’s economy has taken a significant impact, which is seeing the cost of living increasing.
Decriminalizing weed could provide a huge injection of cash into the economy, reducing the pressure on public services.
When marijuana is dealt by gangs and criminals, customers never quite know the quality of weed they are going to be getting or how safe it could be. Legalizing the plant for consumer use would see an entire industry established that would guarantee the highest quality of weed with every smoke.
It would also let smokers choose various strains and types of weed, ensuring they can find the perfect choice for their needs.
While these are just four benefits that legalizing weed in the UK can bring, there are still some advocates who want to keep it illegal. One of their primary arguments is that smoking cannabis leads to them becoming addicted and acts as a gateway into harder drugs. However, this is a myth that has been used continuously since the war on drugs began in the 1970s.
One major study in America found that cannabis usage amongst teenagers showed no changes when it was legalized. In fact, some additional research found that rates of weed smoking actually decreased in certain areas after it became legal. Portugal is also often seen as a clear indication of the positivity that comes from legalizing drugs. In 2001, the country decided to decriminalize drug use, focusing instead on rehabilitation and treatment, and since then drug abuse has halved, with the number of people smoking weed decreasing significantly.
Thanks to the results from Portugal, alongside other countries such as the Netherlands, there is also very little evidence to show that smoking weed acts as a gateway into harder drugs.
The legalization of cannabis in the UK is a very popular subject that certainly creates passioned responses from people on both sides of the argument. However, as more and more countries around the world begin to adopt more progressive views on marijuana, it is surely only a matter of time until the UK follows suit and decriminalizes the plant.
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