Why Is Cannabis Illegal In The UK?

Why Is Cannabis Illegal In The UK?

Updated On

Why Is Cannabis Illegal In The UK?

Every so often a nationwide poll will suggest that a good proportion of the UK populace would back the decriminalisation or even full legalisation of cannabis.

Despite being a Class B drug – the same as the likes of amphetamines and barbiturates – it’s widely used and considered almost universally to be less risky to health than legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

So what gives? Why is a comparatively benign drug increasingly believed to carry inherent health benefits so maligned by the national legislature?

There are many contrasting theories as to why this is the case, but at heart, it comes down to social and political forces/changes over the last couple of hundred years.

How Cannabis Criminalisation Came To Be

Queen Victoria

It’s claimed that even Queen Victoria enjoyed a bit of SMJ.

Quite famously, old Queen Victoria enjoyed a regular pipe of marijuana – prescribed by her doctor no less – and it wasn’t until 1928 that marijuana was banned via an addendum to the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act that made addiction illegal.

Somehow that excluded alcohol and tobacco – but this is a debate for another time. The strange thing is how a ban on a commodity that was widely used for medicinal purposes was so readily accepted by society?

A strong argument for why cannabis use – for any purpose – was outlawed is the presence of a misguided yet popular association with opium, which was considered to be social menace despite limited importation to ‘licensed persons’ still being legal in 1920.

Culturally, opium was associated predominantly with the Chinese immigrant populations who were considered untrustworthy, devious and corrupt (despite keeping the nation’s mines running!).

This theory certainly works in a more modern context of drug enforcement being aimed in a racial context (1980’s USA with black inner-city kids and crack cocaine).

Even after the drug was banned, the law not vigorously enforced until the arrival of black Caribbean immigrants in the 1950’s/60’s.

To put this into context, in 1960 there were 235 arrests in relation to cannabis, a figure which was closer to 5000 by the late 60’s.

What makes this interesting is that you’d assume the arrival of immigrants with a long history of marijuana use would result in them being proportionally over-represented in these figures. Nope – most were actually middle-class white hippy kids.

Wootton Report

An extract from the Wootton Report in 1968.

Perhaps wondering why the figures didn’t fit in their racial stereotypes, the Wootton Report commissioned in 1968 came to a conclusion still vocally expressed by legislation campaigners today.

It found that (probably against their best efforts) there was no evidence that marijuana use caused people to be violent, anti-social, criminalised, addicted or psychotic.

Despite this, it was still classified as a B level drug where, despite a brief downgrading in the mid-2000’s, it has remained ever since.

Attempts At Decriminalising Cannabis In The UK

For decades there have been movements for both decriminalising marijuana for medicinal purposes and also for just making the drug entirely legal.

The former system has already been seen in numerous other western countries without society collapsing, while the latter press for simple regulation such as that used enforced upon alcohol and tobacco.

Only a very few people are arguing that the plant should be considered a garden grown herb.

Key to the campaigns in favour of a more sympathetic approach to cannabis has been also promoting not just the many potential benefits it may offer, but also in educating people as to why it’s widely believed to be ‘safer’ for recreational use than alcohol or tobacco.

These multi-billion pound industries have lobbied heavily against any lowering of the legal status of cannabis, for one simple reason.

In 2016, the Adam Smith Institute reported that not was the UK’s approach towards cannabis pointless and ridiculously ill-informed, but that legalisation could add around £1bn annually in tax revenues.

Much of that money will come from the demise in the huge black market trade in cannabis, but a large amount would also come from people switching from alcohol (around 7,000 deaths/year) and tobacco (80,000 deaths/year).

So What’s Holding Back Reform?

Despite a growing number of politicians across all parties coming out in support for reform, there is still a large proportion of MP’s who consider the issue an unnecessary minefield to cross.

Overall, it is a low priority issue for the current government, who frequently roll out very suspect claims that cannabis use would result in an even greater national mental health crisis.

CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform

“CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform is the UK lobby group for cannabis law reform”

Another factor is that while there are large organisations – perhaps most prominently CLEAR – the overall movement for reform is too fractured.

If there were a unified movement focused upon decriminalisation for medical purposes, then perhaps under a different – and let’s face it more politically left-wing government – progress could be made.

Much depends on how other countries progress, and so far the signs are that a more relaxed approach to cannabis has had no negative impact whatsoever.

Make no mistake – sooner or later reform will happen. The only question concerning that is when.

As more and more people begin to become aware of the likes of cannabidiol (CBD) as a health/food supplement then it’s likely attitudes towards cannabis will continue to soften.

I’m Thomas Jones. I graduated from The University of Aberdeen in 2016 with an MSc in Industrial Biotechnology. I’m currently reading for a PhD at The University of Glasgow. I started using CBD in 2017 as a result of finding it in my local vape shop. My experiences in using these products inspired me to undertake my current doctoral research. You can find out more about me and this site here.