The Legal Situation of Cannabis in the UK

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Cannabis has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1928. Cannabis has also been classified as a ‘Class B’ drug since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was passed, with the exception of the years from 2004 to 2009, when it was rescheduled as a Class C drug. Class B drugs are illegal to possess, distribute and use.

While the main objection to marijuana legalisation continues to be the alleged risks to mental health, the recent trend seems to be in favour of cannabis legalisation and regulation.

As already mentioned earlier, the Liberal Democrat Party is already in favour of legalisation. And while other parties, like the Labour Party, are still officially against cannabis legalisation, some politicians are changing their stance on the matter.

Related: How Far is the UK from Legalising Marijuana?

‘I want the market legalised, regulated and taken away from crime gangs’, Tottenham MP David Lammy told BBC after returning from visiting Toronto. ‘I want to see the strength of the stuff reduced, labelled and properly organised in this country’, he went on. This change of heart might be an indicator of things to come, considering that David Lammy’s party is against legalisation.

Further, the Brexit chaos that is currently happening and will most probably continue to happen might have an impact on the legislation surrounding cannabis use as well.

That being said, cannabis doesn’t equal cannabis. There are over 100 different cannabinoids in the cannabis plant and all of them have different properties.

However, generally speaking, there are two types of marijuana: Cannabis with a high amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive compound that is responsible for the high, and cannabis with a high amount of cannabidiol (CBD).

The problem is that these different types of marijuana look and smell exactly the same, of course, different strains still have different properties, so the only way to tell them apart is a laboratory test. On top of that, there are also medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp.


Recreational marijuana

Recreational cannabis is illegal to consume, produce, possess or sell. If you get caught with cannabis that has more than 0.2% of THC, the current maximum sentence for possession of marijuana is 5 years imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. For supplying or producing marijuana an individual could face a maximum of 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.

That being said, the police can instead choose to issue a warning or an on-the-spot fine of £90 if you’re found with cannabis.



Luckily, THC is only one of the many cannabinoids that are found in the cannabis plant. Another cannabinoid, which is very popular at the moment, is CBD. Unlike CBD flowers, products such as CBD creams, CBD oils, CBD tinctures and so on are completely legal as long as they have less than 0.2% of THC.

Related: The Effects of CBD on the Human Body

CBD doesn’t produce a high and it has many use cases as well as upsides, while not having any downsides, which is why it is so popular and increasingly used for medical purposes such as pain management and stress relief. What’s more, in its pure form, CBD is completely legal in the United Kingdom, it’s only when it’s mixed with other controlled cannabinoids that it becomes illegal.


Industrial hemp

Industrial hemp can be used for a variety of purposes, such as clothing, food, beauty or fabric production, and it’s also the source of the CBD that is used in all CBD products.

Industrial hemp is legal to possess and cultivate as long as you have a license. These licences usually are valid for a year and only allow for the industrial use of the fibre and seed.

Related: Hemp Use-Cases: Unlimited?

However, there is also a way to get a 3-year licence that has special requirements. Additionally, the strains are not allowed to have a THC content of more than 0.2 percent.


CBD cannabis flowers

Industrial hemp is legal, so CBD flowers should also be legal. Right? Wrong.

The aforementioned licences that allow you to grow cannabis with a low THC content for industrial purposes only allow you to use the non-controlled parts of the plant. In other words, they only allow the use of the seeds and the stalk/fibre, not the usage of the flowers.

Since you can’t grow cannabis without a licence, and since you can’t use the flowers even if you have a licence, CBD cannabis flowers are, against popular belief, illegal in the UK.


Medicinal marijuana

Sajid Javid, the then home secretary and now Chancellor of the Exchequer, authorised the use of medicinal cannabis products on the 1st of November 2018. Since then, doctors in the United Kingdom who are on the General Medical Council’s specialist register are allowed to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal purposes.

Cam Battley, who is the chief corporate officer of the Canada-based company Aurora Cannabis, which is the world’s largest medicinal cannabis company, said that the UK was failing patients.

‘What was the point of creating a medical cannabis system if patients can’t access it?’ Battley said when he was speaking at the annual Cannabis Europa conference in London.

And he is right. With only specialists being able to prescribe medicinal marijuana and products like Sativex receiving a do not do recommendation from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence because of it not being cost-effective, the UK really is failing patients who might benefit from medicinal cannabis.


The bottom line

To give you a final overview of the current legal situation of cannabis in the UK, here is a summary of the different legal perspectives.


Recreational marijuana

Current status: Illegal

Trend: Policies are expected to change, police can opt to issue a warning or a fine of £90



Current status: Legal

Trend: Policies are expected to become more lenient


Industrial hemp

Current status: Legal as long as you have the according licence and the THC content is less than 0.2%

Trend: No clear trend at the moment


CBD cannabis flowers

Current status: Illegal

Trend: No clear trend at the moment


Medicinal marijuana

Current status: Legal but hard to get

Trend: The population seems to have a need for medicinal cannabis and there are big players involved who share that sentiment

Recent Developments

With a Series A funding round in 2019 Cannaray, one of the world’s largest cannabis companies, was now able to fulfill its first UK patient prescription. The cannabis prescription, which has been prescribed to Jorja Emerson, a three-year-old British girl who suffers from severe epilepsy, marked a significant milestone in the quest to allow patients to access treatments of medical cannabis.

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