Cannabis legalisation in the UK: How close is Britain to decriminalising marijuana?

Georgia Chambers

Canada has become the second country after Uruguay to legalise the possession and use of recreational cannabis.

The landmark ruling was driven by a campaign promise by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who argued that Canada’s laws criminalising the drug have been ineffective, given that Canadians are still among the world’s heaviest users.

Mr Trudeau also claimed that legalising the drug will keep money out of the hands of criminals and raise $400m in tax revenue.

Despite hundreds of Canadians flocking to cannabis retailers as the news broke, there are concerns over how ready Canada is to embrace a truly liberalised attitude towards cannabis.

Cannabis was made illegal in the UK in 1928 as an addition to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920.

Over time however, statistics have demonstrated an evolution in perception of cannabis usage, which is generally more relaxed.

Data from the Home Office from 2016 showed cannabis was the most commonly used illegal drug in the UK, with 6.5 per cent of adults aged between 16 to 59 having used it in the last year (around 2.1 million people).

A YouGov poll found that 75 per cent of the British public support the use of cannabis on medical grounds, whilst 43 per cent support it being legalised for recreational use.

So what are the current laws surrounding marijuana in the UK and will we ever have our Canada moment? Here's everything you need to know:

What does the law say?

Police in England and Wales recorded 17 per cent more hate crime in 2017/18 (PA Wire/PA Images)

Cannabis is a class B drug, meaning it is illegal to possess, grow or distribute.

Anyone caught in possession could face a maximum of five years in prison and an unlimited fine, or both.

For supplying the drug, the maximum jail sentence is 14 years.

In 2004, Tony Blair's government rescheduled cannabis to a class C drug and there was significant political support for legalisation.

Under Gordon Brown, cannabis was reclassified as a class B drug, among growing fears of its association with schizophrenia and other mental health problems.

What are the laws on medical marijuana?

Charlotte with twelve-year-old son Billy Caldwell (PA)

CBD, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis, is currently being researched for its therapeutic properties.

In December 2016, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) ruled that if CBD is being advertised for medical purposes, it needs to be licensed.

In other words, CBD is technically legal in the UK as long as claims are not made about its benefits.

Motivated by the case of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell, who had his cannabis oil used to treat his severe epilepsy confiscated at Heathrow airport, the law in regards to medical marijuana is now changing.

From November 1, medical cannabis oil will be available on prescription.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the decision has come after he was "moved by heartbreaking cases involving sick children."

How dangerous is cannabis?

Research suggests cannabis users have more sex than those who abstain (Getty Images)

Generally, cannabis is a low-risk drug. Research has shown that only around 10% of cannabis users will develop an addiction.

To put that into perspective, it's estimated 32% of tobacco users will become addicted and 15% of alcohol users will become addicted.

There have also been no known cases of death as a direct result of cannabis usage in the UK.

However, continual links are being made between cannabis usage and the onset of mental health problems.

Although the number of cannabis users fell by a third between 2006 and 2014, demand for the treatment of related mental health problems increased by more than 50%.

This is largely thanks to the popularity of "skunk", a strain of marijuana that is high in THC, the main psychoactive substance in cannabis.

Whilst reports that skunk is 20 to 30 times more powerful than traditional cannabis are exaggerated, it can be up to three times more potent, according to the Drugscope charity.

What do its supporters say?

Criticism: William Hague told the Prime Minister to stop “dithering” over a third runway at Heathrow. (EPA/ALI ABBAS)

More than 25,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to legalise cannabis for both recreational and medical uses.

The main legitimate arguments for legalising cannabis is to crack down on potent strains in circulation and keep money away from drug lords and criminal gangs, with legal sales of cannabis instead working towards boosting the UK economy.

In June 2018, a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) said Britain's black market in cannabis is worth £2.6bn annually, with 225 tonnes sold to more than 3 million people last year.

The report stated: “The dominance of hazardous, high-strength ‘skunk’ cannabis in the black market should be a key reason for legalisation. Licensed sales would allow safer, regulated cannabis to displace the more dangerous strains and generate tax revenue that could be spent on mental health services.”

Around the same time the report was published, William Hague called on Theresa May to legalise cannabis.

In a column for The Telegraph, the former Conservative Party leader blasted the UK's drug policy as “inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date.”

The Labour Party have tended to tread carefully when it comes to discussing legalisation. In July, Jeremy Corbyn said "criminalising people for possession of small amounts of cannabis is not a particularly good idea," although did not vocally back any change in the law regarding recreational usage.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party who have advocated for a fully regulated cannabis market.

In the past, Nick Clegg wanted to see a shift from punishment to treatment, and the manifesto under Vince Cable stated sale and production of the drug could raise up to £1bn in taxes as well as saving police time and money.

What would legal cannabis in the UK look like?

In their report, the IEA said cannabis should rank between alcohol and tobacco in terms of how strictly it is regulated and sales should be restricted to over 18s.

They also propose marijuana would be sold in licensed premises and a licence would be required for growing and importing.

If licensed cannabis made up 95% of the market and it were taxed at 20% VAT plus 30% excise tax, would produce annual tax revenues of £690m.

Meanwhile, the IEA anticipate the growth in jobs, businesses and generation of extra tax while savings to the NHS and other public services would amount to at least £300m a year.

What do its opponents say?

Theresa May declared 'austerity is over' during her conference speech - but this has been challenged (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Despite significant steps being made in regards to medical marijuana, the government have remained resistant towards recreational cannabis.

Back in 2017, Theresa May vowed to continue fighting the country's so-called war on drugs, citing the "incredible damage [drugs] can do to families and the individuals concerned."

In response to Mr Hague's comments, a spokesperson from the Home Office stressed that existing laws on cannabis would not be changed.

They said: "Any debate within government about the efficacy and therapeutic use of cannabis-based medicines emphatically does not extend to any review regarding the classification of cannabis and the penalties for the illicit possession, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis will remain the same."

The government added: "There is strong scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can be detrimental to people’s mental and physical health.”

Will the UK ever legalise cannabis?

Despite resistance, Paul North, Director of External Affairs at Volteface, a think tank who come up with alternative drug policies, says we are a lot closer than people think to following Canada's lead.

Mr North told the Standard: "We will certainly see a regulated cannabis market in the UK in the near future.

"From the libertarian right who want freedom to consume any drug to the far left who want to address issues of social justice and the disproportionate number of BME arrests for cannabis possession; a sensible change to our cannabis laws would appease the majority of the British public.

"The main challenge now is one of education so that the public are better informed of what we have to gain from reform.

"Canada gives us this opportunity and an evidence based to draw upon."