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Why Is Cannabis Illegal In The UK?

Stewart Perrie

| Last updated 

Why Is Cannabis Illegal In The UK?

Happy 4/20 everyone. In homage to the annual day where every weed lover enjoys their joint extra hard - I looked into why the drug is still illegal in the United Kingdom.

Canadian stoners rejoiced at the weekend after news broke that cannabis could soon be decriminalised. It would become the second country in the world, behind Uruguay, to make the move.

A statement released by the Canadian government said: "The current approach to cannabis does not work. It has allowed criminals and organized crime to profit, while failing to keep cannabis out of the hands of Canadian youth. In many cases, it is easier for our kids to buy cannabis than cigarettes.

"The proposed Cannabis Act would create a strict legal framework for controlling the production, distribution, sale and possession of cannabis in Canada."


So why, in comparison, does the UK still list cannabis as a class B drug and punish users with up to five years in jail if they're found to be in possession of the stuff?


Credit: PA

Now some people will jump up and down and profess that cannabis can do damage to your body. Research shows heavy, long term weed use can lead to a variety of mental and physical health conditions including psychosis and schizophrenia.


But Dr Henry Fisher, policy director from drug policy think tank Volteface, tells LADbible that the current legal framework around cannabis just doesn't fit.

Dr Fisher said: "We're left in this interesting situation, and there's no other policy or criminal sense quite like it, where what the reality is and what the rhetoric is, is so different.

"If you read any drug related story in which there's a statement from the Home Office it says the same thing 'drugs are illegal and are bad for people in communities' and that's why they're illegal."

But why was cannabis criminalised in the first place?

It's actually quite interesting to see how cannabis legislation was introduced across the US and UK, but it depends on who you believe.

A conspiracy theory, which is favoured by many weed enthusiasts, is the: 'Hemp Was Ruining The Timber Industry' belief.

The theory explains that the hemp industry was gathering such pace in the early 20th century that it was going to put the timberfirms out of business. One major timber company apparently stood to lose billions if legislation wasn't introduced to combat hemp. Therefore, lobbyists began a smear campaign to demonise the drug and claim it made people into zombies and led to ungodly behaviour.


But another, more credible, theory on why cannabis was criminalised in the US and the UK is related to race.

movie cannabis
movie cannabis

Movie post from the 1940s. Credit: IMBD

It wouldn't be the first time America has allegedly criminalised a drug based to target ethnic minorities. US states began banning opium from 1875 and Doris Marie Provine wrote in her book, Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs, it came 'more from a desire to vex and annoy the 'heathen Chinese' than to protect the people from the evil habit'.


It was only a few decades later that cannabis began being used as a form of racial finger pointing. In 1914, Dr Huntington Williams wrote in the New York Times: "Once the Negro has formed the habit, he is irreclaimable. The only method to keep him from taking the drug is by imprisoning him." Those sentiments were echoed in a Colorado newspaper article in 1936 which read: "I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents."

Up until the 1900s, the drug was known as cannabis, but federal authorities allegedly began using the word marijuana, a Spanish word, in the hope that it would point to Mexicans. Author Johann Hari wrote: "He [Federal Bureau of Narcotics' Harry J. Anslinger] was able to do this because he was tapping into very deep anxieties in the culture that were not to do with drugs - and attaching them to this drug."

Dr Fisher agrees that legislation on cannabis in the US and UK was brought in to spite immigrant groups. It was further hardened in the 1960s because people began challenging the established order.

"Cannabis was seen as something alien, certainly in the US it was attached to immigrant groups and attached to Mexican groups," Dr Fisher says.

"But also here in [the UK in] the 60s and 70s especially, it was attached to waves of immigrants from the Caribbean and attached to the counter-culture and hippie movement.

"Because there was also a kind of campaign that came from the counter-culture movement and young people at the time and celebrities, people like the Rolling Stones, that influenced the attitudes of policy makers."

So instead of cannabis being put in the naughty corner for damage limitation, it could be that it is now listed alongside ketamine and amphetamines because it was used by immigrants; and people criticising the government and challenging social constructs.

How long until it's legalised in the UK?

Well that's the million dollar question. The conversation about legalisation is certainly picking up pace thanks to more reports of its medicinal benefits, and what it could do for the economy.

Jon Liebling, from the United Patients Alliances, told LADbible cannabis has been shown to help those suffering cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, Crohn's, anxiety, depression, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, ME, PTSD, Epilepsy, Chronic and neuropathic pain.

Mr Liebling said: "These patients are forced to either live in unnecessary discomfort and pain or risk dealing with criminals for their medicine and a criminal record for growing it or consuming it."

He believes it will another year before cannabis will be decriminalised for medicinal purposes. But it depends how far the UK government is willing to go.

It's classified as a schedule one under the Misuse of Drugs Acts of 1971, which means it has no therapeutic benefits and has a high potential for abuse.


Credit: PA

But if it was brought down a level, Mr Liebling says more research could be conducted on the drug.

He said: "It may allow the import of pharmaceutical grade products from across the globe, which can be prescribed by doctors and fulfilled by pharmacies. It is likely that Republic of Ireland will be implementing a model like this shortly which would also make research significantly easier."

But he thinks it could be another five more years until the UK introduces something similar to Canada, some US states and Portugal.

Doctor Fisher has a proposed framework for how the drug could be used recreationally.

He said: "If you legally regulate it and control it you can have a wider choice of products, you can create tax incentives so that maybe products that are stronger or more dangerous are more highly taxed so that there's an incentive for people to buy safer forms of cannabis."

The Adam Smith Institute also released a report last year which claimed the UK government could reap up to £1 billion a year in tax revenue if cannabis was legalised.

Doctor Fisher hopes that in a few years the UK will look at Canada and places like Uruguay and see if their policies have effected real change.

He said: "I think they're going to show how much of an improved system, how much of cutting criminals out of the market and how following a public health based model of regulation is an improvement on people who want to use cannabis more happily and more healthily."

Featured Image Credit: PA

Topics: Cannabis, UK

Stewart Perrie
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