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Is Cannabis Legal in the UK?

Cannabis remains illegal to possess, distribute, sell, or grow in the United Kingdom. It is classified as a Class B drug. As such, anyone caught with cannabis risks up to five years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both12.

However, medical use of cannabis is legal since November 2018 when prescribed by a registered specialist doctor.

Types of Cannabis and their legal status

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is a psychoactive drug derived from the Cannabis plant. It contains various chemical compounds, the most notable of which are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is primarily responsible for the psychoactive effects, or the “high,” associated with cannabis use, while CBD is non-psychoactive and is often touted for its potential therapeutic benefits.

Types of Cannabis

  • Marijuana: Contains higher levels of THC and is commonly used for recreational purposes.
  • Hemp: Contains lower levels of THC and is often used for industrial purposes, such as making textiles and biofuels.
  • CBD Products: Derived from hemp or marijuana, these products are used for their potential health benefits without the psychoactive effects of THC.

Common Uses of Cannabis

  • Medical Use: Cannabis is prescribed to manage various medical conditions, such as chronic pain, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-anxiety properties.
  • Recreational Use: Many people use cannabis for its relaxing and euphoric effects. However, recreational use is subject to strict legal controls in the UK.
  • Industrial Use: Hemp is used in the production of various goods, including clothing, paper, and biodegradable plastics.

Laws governing cannabis in UK

The legal status of cannabis in the UK is primarily governed by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. Under these laws, cannabis is classified as a Class B drug, meaning it is illegal to possess, produce, supply, or import without proper authorisation.

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

  • This act categorises drugs into three classes (A, B, and C) based on their potential for harm and misuse.
  • Cannabis is classified as a Class B drug, which includes drugs that are considered moderately harmful. This classification implies stricter penalties compared to Class C drugs but less severe than Class A drugs.

Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001

  • These regulations provide detailed guidelines on the legal use and control of substances classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
  • Under these regulations, the production, supply, and possession of cannabis without appropriate licences are prohibited. This includes both recreational and non-prescribed medical use.
  • Specific conditions and restrictions apply to the use of medical cannabis, which can only be prescribed by a specialist doctor under certain circumstances.

Penalties for Cannabis Offences

Personal Possession

  • In the UK, the possession of cannabis without a prescription is illegal. If an individual is caught with cannabis, the legal consequences can vary depending on the amount found and the circumstances of the case.
  • For a first-time offence involving a small amount intended for personal use, the police may issue a warning or an on-the-spot fine, known as a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND). This typically results in a £90 fine.
  • Repeat offenders or those found with larger quantities may face more severe penalties, including arrest and prosecution. Convictions for possession can lead to up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. The court will consider factors such as the offender’s previous criminal record and the specific circumstances of the offence.

Supply and Distribution

  • The supply and distribution of cannabis are treated as serious offences under UK law. Supplying, offering to supply, or possessing cannabis with the intent to supply can result in severe legal repercussions.
  • The penalties for supply and distribution offences are much harsher than for personal possession. Individuals convicted of these offences can face up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
  • The severity of the penalty often depends on the scale of the operation and the context. For instance, larger distribution networks or cases involving the supply of cannabis to minors or in proximity to schools and playgrounds are likely to attract more severe sentences.

Importing cannabis into the UK without proper authorisation is also illegal and subject to severe penalties, similar to those for supply and production.

Medical Use of Cannabis in UK

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in November 2018. This change allows specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use under certain conditions.

Medical cannabis is not freely available; it can only be prescribed when there is clear evidence of its benefit and when other treatment options have been exhausted. The prescription must be issued by a specialist doctor, not a general practitioner.

Conditions Under Which Medical Cannabis Can Be Prescribed

Medical cannabis may be prescribed for a limited number of conditions, such as severe epilepsy, multiple sclerosis-related muscle spasticity, and nausea or vomiting caused by chemotherapy. These conditions must be severe and not adequately controlled by other medications.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidelines on the circumstances under which medical cannabis can be considered for prescription. These guidelines are stringent, ensuring that medical cannabis is used safely and effectively.

  • Specialist doctors are responsible for prescribing medical cannabis. They must conduct a thorough assessment of the patient’s condition and consider all other treatment options before prescribing cannabis-based products.
  • Prescription guidelines are strict to ensure patient safety. Doctors must ensure that the benefits of using medical cannabis outweigh any potential risks and that the patient is fully informed about possible side effects and proper usage.
  • Patients prescribed medical cannabis are closely monitored to assess their response to the treatment and to manage any adverse effects. This careful supervision helps mitigate risks associated with the use of cannabis-based products, such as dependency or adverse health effects.

Author – Julie Condliffe

Julie Condliffe is a four-time bestselling author, successful property investor and an award winning solicitor. She is the founding partner of Creative Legals.