by Seshata on 04/05/2015 | Legal & Politics

Legal status of cannabis in the UK – an overview

The United Kingdom has a patchy track record with regards to drug policy over the last few decades. At times, there have been signs that attitudes towards cannabis are softening, such as the reclassification experiment in 2004 and the decriminalization trials in some London boroughs in 2002. However, the current situation is among the worst in Europe.


Legal aspects concerning consumption, possession and cultivation of cannabis

Cannabis possession & consumption

UK 1 - Sensi Seeds blog
Possession of cannabis is typically punishable by warnings or fines, but may lead to imprisonment for repeat offences (© Prensa420)

According to the UK government’s website: as a Class B drug, possession of cannabis carries with it a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and/or unlimited fines. However, police are also authorized to issue a Cannabis Warning for a first offence and a Fixed Penalty for Disorder of £90 for a second. While neither constitutes a criminal record, they are entered into the Police National Computer (PNC) and will remain there indefinitely, without becoming “spent” as cautions and convictions do.

If an individual is subsequently found in possession of cannabis, they are then subject to arrest, which may result in charges, a caution, or no further action (NFA may also include further warnings or fixed penalties being issued). In practice, the maximum sentences for possession of cannabis are rarely upheld, but shorter custodial sentences may be imposed for repeat offenders.

Sale of cannabis

Possession of cannabis with intent to supply can result in a maximum prison sentence of fourteen years and/or unlimited fines. Again, these penalties are rarely imposed, except for in some of the most high-profile or large-scale trafficking operations. In practice, the sentence for supply of cannabis can vary greatly according to the individual’s history and level of involvement in the operation, the locality, the amount, and the manner of supply.

Primarily, the “Category of Harm” is taken into account; Category 1 (the most serious) requires intent to supply of 200kg or more of cannabis, Category 2 is set at 40kg, Category 3 at 6kg, and Category 4 at 100g. Thus, for amounts lower than 100g, intent to supply charges are unlikely to be brought. A full list of sentencing guidelines for the various categories and roles can be found here.

Cultivation of cannabis

As it is classified as production of a Class B drug, the cultivation of cannabis also carries a maximum sentence of fourteen years’ imprisonment and/or unlimited fines. The Category of Harm for cultivation is determined by the output or predicted output of the operation: Category 1 comprises factories, commercial greenhouses and large houses that have been fully converted into production facilities capable of producing “industrial” quantities of cannabis; Category 2 covers large rooms, lofts, and similar operations that are capable of producing “significant” quantities; Category 3 is between 10 and 28 plants; Category 4 covers “9 plant domestic operations”.

Depending on role (leading, significant or lesser), individuals involved in Category 4 operations can expect penalties ranging from conditional discharges, fines, and/or community service orders to a maximum of one year’s imprisonment. The law specifies that mitigating circumstances may be considered in cases of medical need, and in practice few individuals with serious, proven medical conditions are imprisoned for growing small quantities—although there have been some notable exceptions to this.

Medicinal cannabis

UK 2 - Sensi Seeds blog
Cannabis seeds of any type may be bought, sold and owned, but may not be germinated and grown (© nostok

The current situation with medical cannabis in the UK is problematic. The only company licensed to produce medicinal cannabis products in the UK is GW Pharmaceuticals, who cultivate 20 tonnes of cannabis each year at their secret facility and use it to produce their trademark drug Sativex, which is a sublingual spray containing cannabis extract at a consistent ratio of 1:1 THC:CBD.

Sativex has been approved for sale throughout the European Union as part of the Mutual Recognition Procedure, but is not widely available in the UK due to its excessively high cost, which has caused a “postcode lottery” of areas whose NHS authority has deemed it unaffordable and other areas that have deemed it a necessary outlay.

Aside from Sativex, would-be medical cannabis patients from the UK have no recourse to legal medicine. Some UK doctors have prescribed cannabis to individuals who then travel elsewhere in Europe (such as the Netherlands) to obtain the legally-prescribed Bedrocan cannabis favoured by the Dutch and Canadian governments, which costs 5-20% of the end cost of Sativex. However, despite laws allowing non-UK EU residents to travel to the UK with their prescription, the Home Office has explicitly stated that UK residents may not enter the UK with medical cannabis legally obtained elsewhere.

Hemp and cannabis seeds

UK 3 - Sensi Seeds blog
Production and sale of hemp goods is entirely legal in the UK (© J. Paxon Reyes)

Cultivation of hemp is legal in the United Kingdom, provided that the grower holds a licence issued by the Home Office. Licences are issued on receipt of a £580 fee, upon completion of criminal records checks, and subject to certain requirements being met: the premises must be located “sensitively”, i.e. not in the vicinity of a school or public area; THC content and provenance of seed must be confirmed, and only EU-approved varieties may be grown.

Hemp products, including seeds, oil and fibre, are all entirely legal in the UK, and there is a small domestic industry that produces oil crops for the food and cosmetics industry, as well as fibre crops for use in the automotive, building and textiles industries. However, the high licence fee  (which is levied irrespective of the area under cultivation) is considered to be off-putting to potential hemp farmers, and has been criticized as causing the UK industry to be less competitive than other EU countries.

All forms of cannabis seed, whether hemp or high-cannabinoid, are legal to buy and possess in the UK, but the law precludes germinating and growing cannabis seed of any type without the appropriate licence.

The UK’s political parties and cannabis

Conservatives

UK 4 - Sensi Seeds blog
Cultivation of cannabis and hemp is illegal without a Home Office licence (© M. Martin Vicente)

The Conservative Party’s approach to drug policy has traditionally been persecutory and repressive. In December 2014, a spokesman for the Party stated that “the Conservatives are clear that drugs are dangerous and ruin lives. We have no intention of decriminalizing drugs”.

Their 2015 manifesto makes only limited mention of drug policy: “we will focus not only on punishment, but also on rehabilitating offenders and intervening early to prevent troubled young people being drawn into crime”.

The current Conservative majority government has overseen the introduction of roadside tests for cannabis and cocaine that can lead to one years’ imprisonment and fines of up to £5000 for driving under the influence of drugs; these laws have been criticized due to the fact that the permissible level of THC in the bloodstream is set extremely low at 2µg/L (in comparison, most U.S. states with per se driving limits in place set the limit at 5µg/L).

Labour

The Labour Party has wavered on drug policy over the last two decades; their 1997 rise to power was accompanied by a strong push in favour of treatment and rehabilitation of drug users, and in 2001 Blair’s government announced that cannabis would be reclassified from Class B to Class C; the reclassification was finalized in 2004 and endured for five years until Gordon Brown oversaw its reclassification back to Class B once more. 2001 was also the year that decriminalization experiments were carried out in Lambeth, South London.

The 2015 Labour manifesto repeats very similar sentiments to that of the Tories: “we will promote early-years intervention, supporting young children and their parents and dealing with problems before they get out of hand”.

Green Party

According to their website, the Green Party is “the country’s only mainstream political party with a long-term commitment to decriminalize cannabis”; they believe that medicinal cannabis should be available to those that need it, and that regulation and legalization of the recreational market would provide an alternative to the black market.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems have traditionally had relatively progressive policies on cannabis, and their current leader Nick Clegg has recently announced a push for wide-ranging reform, including decriminalization of drugs for personal use, legalization of medical cannabis, and a “review to assess the effectiveness of the cannabis legalization experiments in the United States and Uruguay, in relation to public health and criminal activity”.

Scottish National Party

The SNP has stated in the past that would be in favour of drug policy being devolved so that it becomes the remit of the Scottish parliament rather than Westminster. Current leader Nicola Sturgeon has also stated that she is in favour of decriminalization of cannabis.

CISTA (Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol)

CISTA is a single-issue party that advocates for full legalization of cannabis. In the 2015 election they plan to run candidates in approximately 20 constituencies. If elected, candidates will campaign for a Royal Commission to review the UK’s drug policy, with a view to making it legal for all adults over the age of 21.

UK Independence Party

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has stated that drugs should be decriminalized and that the War on Drugs had been lost “many, many years ago”. In an interview with the Telegraph last year, he voiced support for a Royal Commission to review UK drug policy with reference to the example of Portugal.

Comment Section

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chris howard

i smoke canabis, i have, PD. RA. Enphysema. Ank Spon, charge cultivating, using, Guitly as charged. Misuse of drugs. not guilty

04/05/2015

Skellig

The UK 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act has produced so many innocent victims that politicians must be terrified of the compensation bill should it ever be officially admitted that UK drugs policy is pernicious, iniquitous and discriminatory, which would be the implication of any reform. One feels that the best one can expect from mainstream UK politicians is "masterly inactivity".

05/05/2015

richard

Blacks law act and sat can only be forced by consent only it's not law!!!!!!!!!! You the police don't no this because why would learn you this in school

05/05/2015

Barry KINGSHOTT

leave it!!!

08/05/2015

Cali

If i have 1 plant ...is problem?jail?UK

01/04/2016

Scarlet Palmer

Hi Cali,

Cultivation is still illegal in the UK even if it is only one plant. It is not possible to say whether jail time would result from being caught with one plant as there are too many variables to be certain.

With best wishes,

Scarlet

04/04/2016

Dabber

Don't listen to that crap Bro,no way jail time for one plant unless its your tenth offence and your growing a tree out your front yard.

17/02/2017

RastaVapa

I got caught coming out of a ten light grow with 7 kilo hanging up drying when they then went back to my home and found another grow in a tent with herb hanging drying i got a conditional discharge and no criminal record as i have a rare blood cancer and was making oil if you can prove its medical the laws are changing........ this was in 2016

30/09/2017

Maurice King

I got caught with one plant the cops broke it in half & left it at that . I moved address & have since cultivated numerous grows with success . Be careful on who you tell & where you grow . The least folk know the better. Best of luck to everyone in the illegal UK

10/05/2018

asf

You should not grow it! It is illegal and the drug is harmful to peoples minds. You are allowed to buy the seeds but you can only use them for bait, bird seed and you are allowed to eat them.

20/09/2018

Gordon M

What a stooshie about a herb , AND what an industry to be losing at a time of cut backs/ austerity / lack of jobs / and senseless people or / and politicians fighting about something which has grown for thousands of years on this planet , Heyyyyy .. .. how is it that Holland is thriving and not going to the dogs eh ..? Reason - they are / were an historical seagoing nation who grew hemp for rope production ( hemp doesn't rot in sea water / air ) just remember this the next time you go over to Holland for some " Temple Balls " or equivalent ..
p.s. Let's see some grown up discussion on this issue and solve it once and for all and at least have an industry which uses this product for ALL the good uses it has ( shoes/ clothing / rope production / and as an alternative to dangerous plastics ), both medicinal and for recreational use.

27/04/2016

William burndred

Technically we already have the hemp industry in the UK as a company called gw pharmaceuticals is growing it to produce a product called sativex but it's very expensive and doesn't seem to be doing very well, Surley this means that at some point in the future we can look forward to smoking weed in peace and possibly hold best cannabis growing competitions?

16/05/2016

mistermaker

caught with four plants not budding yet about 50cm fined £150

28/08/2016

Miss T

Hope you don't mind me asking, how were you caught with 4 plants? How did the police know you were growing them?

27/04/2017

Jaylad

I think UK isn't even in the stone age,
How can a natural herb provided by our so called God be illegal.....
It has so many healing properties and you don't get gangs of stoners fighting in town centre's due to alcohol, they too busy laughing and enjoying life and raiding fridges!
The problem is the young ones that think they can't go a day without a blunt, and go out robbing to fund their habit.
We should all be able to grow our own personal medication, rather than taking stomach rotting man made drugs.....

20/09/2016

WILL T

I agree, kids are the problem just as they are with tobacco products and alcohol products. I have fibromyalgia and smoke cannabis every day in small amounts and if it wasn't for stupid kids and the government i would be able to grow 1-2 plants and save my self a small fortune as well as stop having tablets all the time which have already messed up my stomach.

22/08/2017

Ad

Your answering your own question really governments and pharmaceutical companies will lose to much revenue from man made medicines there in each others pockets if it was aloud governments will lose tax on the man made products as will the big companies that are also taxed on there income same with cancer research if the have the cure the millions and millions of pounds research gets from donations ect ever year will cease the companies involved will all have nothing to gain its all a big scam
Countries with no national health ect seem to be thriving quite well with these relaxed laws speaks for itself

10/02/2018

Margaret Chorley

I have Parkinson's disease Andre only thing I am allowed for my pain are big pharma drugs. That is the real problem. Canabis would stop the bug pharma from making so much fro fit on the poison that they give us, the poison. They call medicine...

07/10/2016

Carl

Same issue. Have to take morphine everyday. They'd rather prescribe smack than let me smoke cannabis.

11/10/2016

heather

So is this legal, selling/ buying hemp buds on Amazon?

18/05/2017

Scarlet Palmer

Hi Heather,

Thanks for your comment. In the UK, cannabis with less than 0.2% THC (known as hemp or industrial hemp) is legal to purchase from people licensed to grow it, and their resellers, as a herb or in products such as teas. So the short answer is yes. Since CBD, another cannabinoid prevalent in cannabis and currently the subject of both research and controversy for its medicinal applications, now has a questionable legal status in the UK, it remains to be seen whether selling hemp buds will remain legal for much longer. There are more details in this post .

With best wishes,

Scarlet

19/05/2017

Chris oshea

On medication for maralgia parascetica also haemchromatosis painful joints free the weed UK ban all poison meds

30/07/2017

Chemney Young Blunt

The problem is that the pharmaceutical companies that produce Those powerful opioid pain killers will be loosing a lot of money if the pain med would be weed.

03/08/2017

anon

The trouble with commercially available CBD products is that their effectiveness may be very narrow in scope compared to finely tuned dosages where the THC/CBD ratio available from growers. another point worth noting is that CBD products can theoretically have the THC component accentuated by the use of acidic compounds according to some sources..

21/08/2017

Danny

I don't use cannabis but I take a fair bit of medication for spinal stenosis had 3 ops on my back and have neck problems. I've heard cannabis is better and healthier than the pain patches and tablets I take so why can't they make it legal to help people get a better life, it's been used for years in other countries and it's natural

21/08/2017

Antje Cobbett

The licensing of industrial hemp and the permission given to a pharmaceutical company ONLY to grow medical marijuana is giving farmers and pharmaceutical companies the monopoly and they want your money and a lot of it.

I did try many years back to get a hemp growing license from the Home Office, but I wasn't "big" enough, i.e. I didn't have enough land.

As long as I'm not allowed to grow industrial hemp freely and as much as I want to, then it's illegal. I'm a hand spinner and I'm just so disappointed with all the noise that everybody makes about hemp being legal to grow, but let's face it. It isn't.

One day I'll emigrate to a country where hemp grows wild and I can harvest as much of it as I want to.

28/08/2017

dave

It is really quite simple. While the pharmaceutical companies have the monopoly on pain relief drugs any 'free to grow' natural pain relief or cures are going to remain illegal.

It has been shown time and again the massive benefits of cannabis oil with cancer and other ailments, you will not be allowed to encroach on big company profits, simple as.

12/09/2017

karen

Companies are legally selling Hemp oil CBD oil and tablets in the UK. How is this legal if growing and cultivating any form of Cannabis plant is illegal???

29/11/2017

Gilly

I consume one teaspoon of CBD a day for MS, I find it helpful, it tastes horrible, are they all horrible o taste?

12/12/2017

Conrad

There is officially 2mln people in UK declaring use of cannabis, if all of this 2mln would sign the petition to legalise cannabis, government would have to do something about it. We should all united and go on the streets to manifest our right to use this hemp, and that interest of big pharma companies should not be a issue. We are only strong as we unite, otherwise the so called government will ignore us. Lets unite, let's spread the word, let everyone know that this hemp got a real power to change the world for better!!!

21/12/2017

joe l

The body shop (a UK beauty store) is selling Hemp body care range how is this legal?

30/12/2017

Alexia

They put fluoride in our water to block our pineal gland and forbid us to eat natural plants to stop us communicating with the earth? Is this so we continue to buy into the war machine. Personally, I don't like cannabis but I am an activist on the War against Nature.

22/01/2018

Riverman

The UK's Cannabis Trade Association (CTA), an umbrella organisation for all sorts of cannabis related businesses in the UK, has been informing its members that they should stop selling all raw cannabis flower/bud. This includes some well known, established brands which sell whole and crushed flower, including teas etc.

Apparently the CTA has informed its members that possession and/or selling of raw, unprocessed cannabis flowers contravenes the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971.

There are a few small businesses in the UK (presumably not members of the CTA) which are starting to sell higher grade, imported, CBD rich cannabis flowers which comply with the EU legislation on <0.2% THC content. However, if the CTA is right, these flowers are illegal in the UK and these businesses could probably expect to get a knock on the door from the authorities.

What about say, shish or resins, both of which are processed and many of which could contain less than 0.2% THC? If a producer/seller crushed whole flowers and removed stalks/seeds, would the resulting product be considered a processed product and therefore legal?

If the understanding of the CTA is correct, not only does this seem to be ridiculous (nothing new for UK law), but it is also likely to cause further confusion. If some businesses continue to sell raw flowers, there will likely be more prosecutions and less likelihood of the market being better regulated and consistent regarding what is on offer for consumers. If the market for CBD-rich flowers is closed down in the UK, people who want them will be forced to go to illegal sources, just like those who want to get hold of THC rich cannabis. The UK government and the advisors they choose could do with giving their collective head a good shake!

Does anyone else have more information on this development?

13/03/2018

Another face

So here we are in 2018 & I wonder if we really have moved forward at all. Sure the kid on the street with a 1/8 th gets a warning however growing I dunno.

Having just ripped down my meds after a heads up my neighbour has grassed me up I really do wonder.

It's postcode lottery and if your unlucky tough they still won't leave you alone medical or not.

The council are worse than the cops so wadda you do buy on the street again well tried that mmmm nice infused cannabis turps m8 thanks for the migraine !

See you in Holland again !!!

13/03/2018

Lydia

How to sensibly buy LEGAL cbd oil? Because I got a letter saying customs has confiscated my package two times already and I’m pissed.

20/04/2018

Scarlet Palmer

Hi Lydia,

Thanks for your comment, sorry to hear that you are having problems. Did you order the oil from Sensi Seeds? If you prefer, you can try larger health food stores, who should have CBD oil.

With best wishes,

Scarlet

20/04/2018

Maurice King

I have been a victim of the UK drug laws , I have spent numerous year's in Scottish prisons for cannabis. My future was ruined 30 year past , I hope for future generations the laws are changed

10/05/2018

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