Cannabis in the United Kingdom

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Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the United Kingdom. It is a plant which is not native to the British Isles but one that was probably introduced from Continental Europe towards the end of the Roman occupation. The traditional name in Britain for Cannabis sativa was hemp and that name is still used in the United Kingdom, although nowadays it refers almost exclusively to the non-psychoactive strains of the plant typically cultivated by growers and processors of industrial cannabis. The word cannabis is contemporaneously used as a generic term for plants and plant products deliberately grown for, or because of, their psychoactive properties; that is, the ones that can 'get you high'. A number of organisations advocate a reform of its legality, such as NORML UK, UKCSC, Drug Equality Alliance, Cannabis Law Reform The United Patients Alliance and Feed The Birds while other organizations such as the Centre for Social Justice and Skunk Sense advocate that cannabis remains illegal.

information on marijuana in the United Kingdom


The oldest evidence of cannabis in Britain is of some seeds found in a well in York. Over time its cultivation spread wildly. The medical properties of cannabis have been recorded since the dawn of history and it is mentioned (as hænep) in the surviving text of an Anglo-Saxon herbal.[citation needed] However, since it appears to have been mostly grown around the coastal areas it suggests the main reason for cultivating it was undoubtedly as a source of vegetable fibre which was stronger and more durable than stinging nettle or flax. This makes it ideal for making into cordage, ropes, fishing nets and canvas. Indeed, when cannabis is grown for fibre it is sown close together so that the plants need to grow tall and strong to compete with each other for light. This encourages the cannabis plants to produce more fibre at the expense of the medically useful cannabinoid compounds.

In order for Henry VIII to expand his navy he found it necessary to decree in 1533 to compel landlords to set aside 1/240th (0.42%) of their tillable land, to the growing of hemp, ensuring an adequate supply of fibre.Elizabeth I increased production still more and went further by imposed a £5 fine on any eligible landowner who refused to grow it.[citation needed] As more fibre became available so people found other uses for it and it so it became an important part of the British economy. Eventually, demand had expanded to the point that the demand for more fibre was part of the driving force to colonize new lands. Thanks to its hardiness and ease of cultivation, it became an ideal crop to grow in the new British colonies. Moreover, the naval ships built to protect the new colonies and those built to bring the hemp back, also increased demand, as every two years or so much of their two hundred tonnes of ropes and sail cloth had to be renewed.


The cannabis plant and its products were so ubiquitous in Britain that it has left many cultural traces behind.


Place names of important centres of the former hemp industry still contain the name of hemp such as Hempriggs in Caithness, Hempland in Dumfriesshire, Hemel Hempstead and the county of Hampshire (Hempshire).

In literature

Let gallows gape for dog, let man go free And let not hemp his wind-pipe suffocate. – Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6


Shell used it in their oils and Lord Nelson's ships had sails and ropes made from hemp. It is popular belief that Queen Victoria used Cannabis for menstrual pain relief. It is also used as a health supplement (hemp seed) and for things such as clothing, "hemp-crete" (a new form of hemp concrete) among many other examples.

Modern industrial cannabis market

Since 1993 the Home Office has been granting licence for the purposes of cultivating and processing cannabis. The UK government now provides free business advice and support services for growers and processors of cannabis for fibre. They can also issue licences for importing fibre in the form of hemp from abroad. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) provides help and advice with obtaining financial assistance via the Single Payment Scheme. In England further funding may be available from Rural Development Programme for England.

Medicinal products containing cannabis

Apart from a synthetic cannabinoid called Nabilone, (which has many side effects), the only cannabis based medicine licensed for medical-prescription in the UK is Sativex. This medication can be prescribed by a doctor to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cytotoxic chemotherapy[citation needed]; the latter is indicated only for the treatment of spasticity caused by the degenerative, incurable and rare neurological-condition multiple sclerosis. For other indications approval needs to be first sought from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. EU-residents prescribed medical products containing cannabis are permitted to be in possession of cannabis whilst freely travelling throughout the United Kingdom. Although it is possible to use all kinds of cannabis for medicinal purposes, some are more appropriate for specific conditions than others.However, this does not apply to UK-resident patients, who may not travel to the UK in possession of medicinal cannabis even if they managed to acquire a prescription in a country where it is legal.


Mice, rats and fowl are all known to like cannabis seed and it is a favoured food amongst some British pigeon fanciers. The Linnets' fondness of the cannabis seed has earned it the Latin species name of cannabina. By and large, cannabis seed is too expensive to be used as general feed stock but once the oil has been pressed out the remaining seed cake is still nutritious.

The plant itself has not been used as fodder as too much makes animals sicken, and due to its unpleasant taste they will not eat it unless there is no other food available. The soft core of the cannabis plant which remains after the fibres are removed provides good animal bedding which can absorb more moisture than either straw or wood shavings.

Boiled cannabis seed is frequently used by British sport fishermen, as fish are very fond of this as bait.


Cannabis is widely used throughout the United Kingdom, by people of all ages and from all socio-economic backgrounds. It is also commonplace to request cannabis by price, such as a "Tens" for £10 worth, without question of the weight.

Cannabis is at times linked to young people beginning to smoke tobacco as cannabis is often smoked with tobacco in the United Kingdom, unlike in many other parts of the world. As well as the use of tobacco when smoking cannabis, as a spliff, many people in Britain use a "roach card". As the option of vaporisation becomes more readily available, and as the market for hashish is replaced by herbal cannabis grown in the UK which can be smoked pure in a joint, this association of mixing cannabis with tobacco is becoming weaker. The higher relative price of Cannabis compared to the rest of the world remains the most likely explanation for the mixing of cannabis with tobacco, (although many users do this purely to ensure the "joint" smokes correctly, and to prevent it from going out.)

Prevalence and price

Cannabis ranges in price across the country. Present, prices are deemed to be around £20 for an 'eighth' (of an ounce; 3.5g). In Northern parts of the UK, such as Aberdeen, 'normal' pricing tends to be 1.5-2g for £20, or 2g for £30 although the cannabis is very potent. In general, the larger the quantity bought, the more you'll get for the same price compared to if you bought the bags separately, i.e if you buy an ounce for £220-240, it will contain more than if you buy 11-12 "20 bags", or 22-24 "ten bags". In the lower regions of Scotland cannabis typically sells at between £10–£12.50 per gram, depending on the potency. These discrepancies tend to decrease as the nominal amount increases, acting as a 'bulk discount' reflecting economies of scale. Also in the cannabis market, inflation tends to reduce the quantity of cannabis that can be purchased for a set price, rather than increase the nominal price of a set quantity ('bag') of cannabis. However, there is a growing acceptance amongst consumers that higher-potency, imported cannabis will be sold at a premium (at smaller weights or for a higher price).


Main article: Cannabis classification in the United Kingdom

According to the Home Office, "It remains illegal for UK residents to possess cannabis in any form". Giving evidence to 1997–98 parliamentary select committee hearings, the British Medical Association (BMA) said that users of cannabis for medical purposes should be aware of the risks, should enroll for clinical trials, and should talk to their doctors about new alternative treatments; but the BMA did not advise them to stop.

Cannabis is illegal to possess, grow, distribute or sell in the UK without the appropriate licences. It is a Class B drug, with penalties for unlicensed dealing, unlicensed production and unlicensed trafficking of up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. The maximum penalty for unauthorised or sanctioned possession is five years in prison. It is, however, worth noting that a "Cannabis warning" can be issued for small amounts of cannabis (generally less than 1 ounce of herbal cannabis, or a slightly higher quantity of hashish) if it is found to be for personal use. This entails the police keeping a record, albeit one which carries no fine and does not show up on CRB checks (although may well show up on a CRB anyway due to poor police administration).[20] From 2004 to 2009 it was a Class C drug.

In the survey-year ending March 2014, possession of cannabis offences accounted for 67% of all police recorded drug offences in the UK.

Advocacy for law reform

As prohibition has made psychotropic drugs in general very available, and without controls on adulterants or to whom they are sold, a number of organisations have been set up with the aim of reforming the law on these unregulated substances.

  • UKCSC — United Kingdom Cannabis Social Club
  • Drug Equality Alliance (DEA)
  • Law Enforcement Against Prohibition(LEAP)(Branches Worldwide)
  • European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) (Branches also in Austria, Germany and Norway)
  • Transform Drug Policy Foundation
  • CLEAR (Cannabis Law Reform)
  • The United Patients Alliance

The current Prime Minister David Cameron, when serving in opposition, sat on the Select Committee on Home Affairs and voted to call on the Government to "initiate a discussion" within the UN about "alternative ways — including the possibility of legalisation and regulation — to tackle the global drugs dilemma".

In June 2010, it was revealed that the Home Office had been avoiding complying with the FOI request "to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base" that its current drug policy had.

In 2011, The Global Commission on Drug Policy backed by Richard Branson and Judi Dench called for a review. The Home Office response on behalf of the Prime Minister was: "We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs (sic) are illegal because they are harmful — they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities", despite much evidence that progressive drug policies in fact reduce crime.

In 2012 a panel of MPs, as well as deputy prime-minister Nick Clegg, recommended that drug policy be reformed, as the current policy does not adequately deal with the problem. David Cameron rejected the idea.

See also

Adult lifetime cannabis use by country

Annual cannabis use by country

List of British politicians who admit to cannabis use