Marijuana is the most popular illegal substance in the UK, with approximately 2.4 million people admitting to using it in the year 2017/18. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that more than half of the population supports legalization, with 76% in favor of legal medical cannabis and 59% supporting legal recreational use.
The current trend toward legalization in other countries such as the USA and Canada has led many UK residents to speculate as to whether their drug of choice could soon be legal there too. Their hopes were bolstered further in 2018 when home secretary Sajid Javid approved cannabis for medical use, and the drug was reclassified from a schedule I to a schedule II controlled substance.
However, to date, only a small handful of patients have managed to obtain prescriptions for medical marijuana and those that have succeeded have experienced significant difficulties in actually getting their hands on their medication.
Furthermore, the National Health Service (NHS) has stated that “the government has no intention of legalizing cannabis for recreational use.” This statement is disappointing for those dreaming of full legalization in the next few years, but is all hope lost?
We ask whether weed is ever going to be legalized in the UK, and take a look at some of the possible outcomes if it happens.
Current Weed Laws in the UK
In the UK, weed is currently classed as a class B drug alongside amphetamines, barbiturates, ketamine, and codeine. If you are found with any of these substances, you could face an unlimited fine and up to five years in prison. If you are caught supplying a class B drug, the penalties are even more severe, and you could face as long as 14 years behind bars.
However, in practice, most first-time offenders found carrying small quantities of weed will get away with a warning. Second-time offenders may be issued with a Penalty Notice for Disorder, a £90 fine which must be paid within a 21-day time frame. If this fine is not paid, or if a person is caught with cannabis a third time, then a conviction becomes more likely.
The fact is that although weed is technically illegal, the police are already overstretched and are unlikely to waste time and resources on minor offenders. According to statistics published by the BBC, punishments for cannabis possession fell dramatically between 2010 and 2017. The number of cannabis warnings, penalty notices, cautions, and prosecutions issued in 2017 was just 60,000, compared with 140,000 seven years earlier. You are, however, far more likely to be charged if found using marijuana in a public place, so flaunting it is not advised!
Medical Marijuana in the UK
Pro-cannabis campaigners in the UK received good news in November 2018 when marijuana was approved for medical use for a handful of conditions. This move followed several high-profile cases including those of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, two children with severe forms of epilepsy. Both boys had experienced major improvements in their symptoms after taking cannabis oil, but the treatment was not yet legal in the UK.
After much campaigning and media coverage, the home secretary Sajid Javid made the unexpected decision to legalize cannabis oil for medical use. This change in policy was seen as a milestone victory by some, but in reality, not a lot has changed.
Only specialist consultants can prescribe medical marijuana, and pharmacies require a license to stock cannabis-based products. This situation means that very few patients have been able to receive prescriptions for medical marijuana. And those who have managed it have been forced to wait long periods before picking up their treatment.
Another significant problem for medical marijuana patients in the UK is that the drug is classed as an unlicensed medicine. This is chiefly due to a lack of scientific evidence supporting its use, as years of prohibition have severely hindered the progress of cannabis research. Most doctors are unwilling to prescribe weed as they do not feel that they have enough information available.
The final hurdle to obtaining medical marijuana in the UK is cost. Most patients have been forced to see private physicians as they cannot access cannabis-based medicines on the NHS. Those few patients who have been fortunate enough to get prescriptions have reportedly paid between £695 and £2500 for a month’s supply of weed!
So, it seems that the legalization of medical marijuana in the UK has not been as great a leap forward as we might have hoped. However, it is early days, and the situation is bound to improve over time. The NHS has already issued prescribing guidelines for physicians, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) followed suit in November 2019. For now, it’s a case of watch and wait.
Should Weed Be Legalized in the UK?
Although support for legalization is growing, there are those who staunchly oppose legal weed in the UK. So, what are the possible outcomes of full marijuana legalization? Do the pros outweigh the cons?
One considerable selling point for legalizing cannabis in the UK is that it could reduce the immense burden that is currently weighing down the NHS. A 2016 study conducted in the US found that the use of certain prescription drugs fell dramatically following the implementation of medical marijuana laws. The study’s authors estimated that reductions in spending of approximately $165 million were made in the year 2013 alone.
Another study, this time from 2014, looked at the effects of marijuana legalization on opioid overdose, a genuine problem on both sides of the Atlantic. The study’s results suggested that there was almost a 25% reduction in fatal opioid overdoses in states with a medical marijuana program in place.
Pro-cannabis campaigners also insist that legalization could reduce drug-related harms by imposing more regulations on who can buy marijuana and how much they can obtain. At present, weed in the UK is only available on the black market, and there is no way to know its THC content or whether it contains other contaminants. Unscrupulous dealers are also more likely to sell weed to teenagers, the group of people most at risk of experiencing side effects such as psychosis, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
This situation could be combated by legalizing weed, which would make it easier to impose age restrictions on who can buy, as well as implementing a maximum THC content to reduce the risk of adverse effects.
It is widely believed that prohibition is one of the key reasons why the THC content of weed has become so much higher in recent years. In a dealer’s mind, if you are going to risk prosecution, it might as well be for a potent and highly desirable product! However, there are many users who would prefer to smoke strains with a higher CBD to THC ratio given a choice. At present, this is not an option in the UK. You are lucky if you know what strain you are buying, let alone its cannabinoid content!
Another compelling argument for legalization is that it could boost the economy with extra tax revenue and the creation of new jobs. This could be especially important following a no-deal Brexit, a scenario which many predict will damage the economy severely.
On the other hand, there are several convincing arguments against cannabis legalization. These were highlighted by a report published by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. Although the religious nature of the institute suggests there could be some level of bias, the report does raise some interesting points.
It suggests that there has been a significant increase in calls to Poison Control since pot was legalized in the state. It also focuses on the environmental cost of legal weed, stating that the marijuana industry is less than green in terms of electricity and plastic use, not to mention carbon emissions.
Weighing up the pros and cons of legalizing weed in the UK is a complex process, and there are many factors to consider. However, what most people do seem to agree on is that it is a question of public health rather than law enforcement, which is a step in the right direction, at least.
Is Weed EVER Going to Be Legalized in the UK? Final Thoughts
If you are hoping that weed will be legalized in the UK in the next few years, it seems you may be disappointed. Unfortunately, due to a lack of scientific evidence, the UK medical marijuana program is struggling to get off the ground, and until that is well-established, it seems that recreational use will remain firmly outside the law.
One thing to be grateful for is that punishments for being caught with weed in the UK are nowhere near as harsh as they are in some other countries, and the police have bigger issues at hand. But until full legalization happens, the majority of UK pot-lovers will be stuck smoking low-quality, black market weed with no way of knowing how much THC it contains. It’s a sad state of affairs but seems unlikely to change any time soon.
So, is weed EVER going to be legalized in the UK? Well, we certainly hope so, but we’re not holding our breath!