For those caught with a small amount of cannabis – typically less than one ounce – police can issue a warning or on-the-spot fine if the possession is deemed for personal use.
Cannabis was first made illegal in the UK in 1928.
Libertarian campaigners also call for a reform in the law on grounds of personal choice and individual freedom.
What is the law on cannabis in the UK?
In 2001, the Government began a major policy shift on cannabis by conducting a trial in Lambeth, South London, for dealing with cannabis possession offences. Officers in the area would no longer arrest individuals for possession but instead issue a verbal warning and confiscate the substance.
The UK public is open to consuming cannabis as a medicine if prescribed to them by their doctor – 76% would be willing to do so, and this level of agreement is fairly consistent across demographic groups. [Source, 2018 Populus poll for Volteface and the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis]
The Early 2000s – The downgrading of Cannabis In the early 2000s, there was a temporary change in the UK Government’s stance on cannabis, largely in response to changing public perception towards the drug at the time.
Reclassification of cannabis to Class B was, the government said, “a preventative measure” which “takes account of its known risks to health as well as the potential long-term impacts on health where the evidence is not conclusive”. The government stated that, “Reclassifying cannabis to Class B will reinforce our national message that cannabis is harmful and illegal, and will help to drive the enforcement priorities to reverse the massive growth in commercial cultivation.”
Cannabis remains illegal to possess, distribute, sell or grow in the UK.
According to a 2016 Home Office Survey, 6.5% of people aged between 16 and 59 reported to have used cannabis in the previous year, with the figure rising to 15.8% amongst those aged between 16 and 24.
In what countries is cannabis use legal?
Having legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes in 2001, Canada became the first whole G7 nation to legalise the recreational use of the drug in October 2018.
In France, the possession and use of cannabis remains prohibited and can be punished by one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 4,000 Euros. And in Germany, possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence, albeit the Public Prosecutor may not prosecute if the offence relates to a small amount for personal use and it is not in the public interest to prosecute.
In 2018, Home Office figures showed that 15,120 people in England and Wales were prosecuted for possession of cannabis.
In the 2021 London Mayor elections, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his manifesto with a pledge to set up a drugs commission.
Early Years In the early 1900s, cannabis was popular both as a recreational and a medicinal compound and it is rumoured to have been given to Queen Victoria by her doctor to relieve period pain. Cannabis use was legal and was reportedly used by writers and other artists as a source of inspiration, and to aid imagination. For example, the books ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ were thought to be written while Lewis Carroll was using cannabis.
However, echoing the decriminalization movements witnessed in other countries, in recent years there have been fresh calls for a rethink on the approach towards cannabis laws UK.
“Can British Conservatives be as bold as Canadian Liberals? We ought to be. After all, we believe in market forces and the responsible exercise of freedom, regulated as necessary. We should prefer to provide for lawful taxes than preside over increased profits from crime. And we are pragmatists, who change with society and revise our opinions when the facts change” – Former Conservative Leader, William Hague, writing in the Daily Telegraph, 2018.
In the United States of America, Colorado and Washington became the first States to move to legalisation in 2012. Since that time, some 16 American States have moved to legalise cannabis usage, with New York doing so in July 2019. A number of other States also now permit cannabis use for medicinal purposes.
“The regular use of cannabis is known to be associated with an increase in the risk of later developing psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia. If the recent increase in availability of stronger forms of cannabis does lead to an increase in total use by some people, this might also lead to an increase in their future risk of developing mental health problems. Nobody knows the answer to this question yet…” FRANK – 2011.
The project, which is four years in the making, has had him enlist the help of Portuguese universities and medical experts to create a site that he says has the perfect growing conditions for these profitable plants.
It’s the latter that White plans to grow on a 100-hectare farm in Portugal that he predicts will be the largest cannabis farm in the world.
Elsewhere in Europe, companies have invested in cannabis farms and processing facilities in countries including Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Germany.
The growth in cannabis farms is a direct response to a swelling market for cannabis products. The emergence of approved and regulated drugs to treat conditions such as epilepsy, along with a gradual relaxing of legislation around both medicinal use – including in the UK in November 2018 – and recreational use in various countries around the world, has contributed to a growing demand for high quality, carefully grown cannabis plants.
It all sounds very hi-tech, but the way the plants are controlled isn’t that different from growing roses to ensure you have the best blooms possible, says Tovey.
With more than 20 years in the sector, GW puts itself among some of the more experienced players. “When GW moved to Kent Science Park site over 20 years ago the first building was the research glasshouse,” says Tovey. “A handful of people learned how to grow cannabis and learned how to grow it consistently.”
“Undoubtedly the cannabis plant and the chemicals in it is the most amazing opportunity to create new medicines,” adds Tovey.
But this crop is slightly different. Once filled with tomato plants, the glasshouse owned by British Sugar is now home to hundreds of thousands of cannabis plants grown for the pharmaceutical company GW Pharmaceutical.
But whatever direction the regulation of the cannabis industry takes, one thing is clear – the great glasshouse at Wissington is likely to have plenty more Del Monte moments.
The luscious green plants stretch as far as the eye can see. Row after row, lovingly tended in a glasshouse that’s roughly the same size as 34 football pitches.
Some argue that cannabis farming also comes with a toll on the environment. While outdoor growing, which uses natural sunlight and rainwater, is viewed as less harmful, large indoor production facilities come with heavy power and water consumption.
Thought to be one of the UK’s largest glasshouses, the 45-acre glasshouse in Wissington, Norfolk, sits in an area known for the growing of crops, vegetables and fruit, from peas and beans to tomatoes and strawberries.
As well as being different from the plants grown for the wellness market, they’re also worlds apart from those in unregulated farms. These include those found in places such as China and Eastern Europe, growing cannabis for the illegal market, or homemade “farms” set up in abandoned houses or lofts across the UK.
If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s the importance of regulation when it comes to managing this exploding industry.
Look closely and you may think every plant looks the same – their height, the density of leaves and flowers. It’s not your eyes playing tricks on you. To ensure they produce the right qualities for the medicines they help make, these plants are grown in a way that ensures they are all virtually identical.
Unfortunately that is complicated within an amazing new category that’s sprouted in the last few years and further complicated by recreational cannabis. There are different categories and they need to be regulated in different ways.”
From oils, pills and vapes to gummies, shots, dog treats and even gym wear, the products are generally affordable and are available on the high street or online. They are claimed to have benefits ranging from pain relief to help with stress or anxiety.
It’s a difference that the British entrepreneur Maximilian White – who is planning his own cannabis farm in Portugal – also points out. “People have to understand the difference between cosmetic CBD and medical CBD,” he says.
Earlier this year, Savills estimated that the UK CBD market was worth £300m and is expected to more than triple in the next five years – taking it to a potential £1bn market by 2025.
GW is reluctant to see its facility at Wissington described as a farm, preferring the term “high-tech glasshouse”. The state-of-the-art facility includes 24/7 climate control and precise regulation of the plants’ exposure to sunlight and nutrients. The specific growing protocols and timelines, developed and managed by a team of scientists and horticulturalists, ensure the plants are strictly standardised and of the highest quality for use in regulatory-approved medicines. For them, this sets it apart from the generic idea of a “cannabis farm”.
It is big business. London-based analysts Prohibition Partners estimated that the European cannabis market will be worth £106bn by 2028, while according to the publication Health Europa , the global medical cannabis market was worth $13.4bn (£10bn) in 2018 and is projected to grow to $148bn by 2026.
In figures released in 2018, analysts New Frontier Data estimated that legal cannabis cultivation in the US consumed 1.1 million megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity annually – enough to power 92,500 homes for a year – and forecast that to increase 162 per cent from 2017 to 2022.
Those parents are then used to create “clones” grown on an industrial scale in the glasshouse at Wissington. Cuttings taken from them and put into small pots are bathed in light to accelerate the growing process then moved into the main glasshouse and provided with all the water and nutrients they need.
Many of the major players investing in facilities in Europe are US and Canadian companies. They include Canadian giant Aurora Cannabis and its Danish subsidiary, Aurora Nordic, as well as Cronos Group, a Canadian producer and distributor of medical cannabis that also operates in Germany, Israel, and Australia. Canopy Growth is also Canada-based but has operations in eight countries across five continents.
“All of the plants we use are a result of really old-fashioned Mendelian techniques,” he says. He is referring to Gregor Mendel’s discovery of the principles of inheritance and genetic traits through experiments with pea plants.
The scale of the facility reflects the size of the global cannabis industry and its rapid growth to cater for a rising demand in cannabis-based medicines as well as a consumer-focused CBD market.
The stems are cut and they are allowed to dry naturally before being processed and put through a machine that strips the flowers, removes the stems and leaves and prepares them to be dried and formed into pellets ready to be shipped away. And then it starts all over again.
That handful of people has grown into a huge operation, with around 400 people based at the facility now – a mixture of welly-wearing horticulturists who get their hands dirty and white-coat-wearing technical teams that analyse the plants to ensure they have the right genetic make-up for the task at hand.
They that are significantly different from their distant relatives such as hemp or high-THC plants.
Carefully cultivated at GW’s research facility in Kent, the plants are reared on an industrial scale in Wissington with high levels of cannabidiol – or CBD – and very little THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive element commonly associated with marijuana. It makes them perfect for approved and regulated epilepsy drugs.
James also hopes the scheme will help to foster better relations with the police, as he'd like to be able to access his medicine without fear of arrest or prosecution. "I've had bad joint and muscle pain for about five years, and I've used cannabis concentrates to help with pain relief," he says. "After years of different tests, I just found out this week that it's fibromyalgia. This is why I grow cannabis; even though I have been raided before, it is the only way I can guarantee consistent quality meds."
The UKCSC sells a kit containing branded tags complete with unique serial numbers, and a poster bearing a notice for the police. You can use these to tag up to nine plants in one grow location, which signifies your operation is not one with criminal intentions. In other words, you are not a street or commercial dealer.
Nine tagged plants.
A poster provided as part of the UKCSC’s tagging system.
There are four categories of cannabis grows in the eyes of the law. Category 1 is where your operation is capable of producing enough for commercial distribution, and the remaining categories work their way down to number four, meaning nine or less plants, which can be considered a "domestic operation."
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Alongside the tagging system, domestic growers in certain parts of the country have something else their side: The fact that Sara Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs Council, has said cracking down on weed has "never been a top priority," and that if police are alerted to small-scale grows they're more likely to just "record" the news rather than carry out an investigation.
The money raised would be added directly to the community's tax budget, and therefore was a win-win situation for everyone—growers who signed up to the system were no longer anxious about being raided, and the community benefited economically.
The tagged plant model also does more than just sending a message, it also allows the UKCSC to track data around how many potential medical users and growers exist in the UK. Greg de Hoedt, the President of the UKCSC, got the idea for this comprehensive anonymous database after seeing similar systems in US states where cannabis is legal, like California and Colorado.
In Colorado, cannabis is tracked by batch and by gram from seed to sale. This system of regulation was another source of inspiration for Greg, who sees such moves as an important part of cannabis coming out of the underground and becoming an accepted part of society. "This is about taking cannabis into our own hands and away from criminals," he says. "The tags are about knowing your cannabis has been grown properly, cleanly, and is of medical quality. The tags are about being ethical—knowing that acquiring your medication or your recreational drug doesn't fund the dealing of hard drugs, sex trafficking, or other real crime."
No one who is registered under the tagging system has actually been raided yet, so how the police and courts will view this model has not yet been tested. "I'd like to think the police would look at the tags and be able to clearly see that the plants are not intended for sale on the street and that they are for helping people to have a decent quality of life," says James.
Whether or not this tagging system will make a tangible difference to a potential court case is yet to be seen, but the message is clear: Some people just want to grow the weed they smoke, and which affects only them, without being dealt with like gangsters by the authorities. Whether it's for medical or recreational purposes, Greg tells me he sees it as a human right for someone to be able to grow and supply their own medicine and to have the freedom to choose what they do with their own bodies.
"The inspiration initially came from an area in California called Mendocino," says Greg. "When the area was doing badly economically, the police force risked having major cuts. As the area was already known to be full of weed growers, they decided to drastically slow down on raiding weed farms—instead, they offered growers tags and flags for $8,000 that would make them immune from being a police target. The only condition was that there were no more than 99 plants being grown."
(Top photo: two tagged plants) This post originally appeared on VICE UK In the UK, growing weed is usually a pretty clandestine procedure. It has to be, really, considering it's still very much illegal and can see you handed anything from a community service sentence to a decade in prison. Good news for green-fingered smokers, then, that the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC) has recently launched a system that, in theory, would help you battle a court case if your grow was busted.
Another grower under the UKCSC scheme, Trev, has confidence in the project. He says: "Sooner or later we'll hit a tipping point where the police have to work far more effectively with us, rather than against us. The same will happen vice versa, which all goes towards community relations and cracking down on crime gangs. The tags show the police that I'm part of something bigger than myself. It shows them that I'm part of a culture that would far sooner work with them for change."
James, a grower who has been raided before, has recently registered his garden under the tagged collective model. He told me: "This scheme allows us to show that we are not commercial growers if we do get another knock at the door. And it shows the authorities that whilst cultivation is illegal at the moment, we are trying to do it in as professional a manner as possible and be responsible."
These collectives consist of many medical users of cannabis who are looking for the safest and fairest access possible, as well as recreational enthusiasts who don't want to associate with the criminal market and also wish to grow their preferred strains to a much cleaner standard than what's available on the street. As well as making it clear to the court that your grow was not funding organized crime, the money you paid for the tags goes into a pot maintained by UKCSC, which helps to fund your legal defense if you do ever get raided.
"The sheriff who headed up the idea was praised for his innovation by most, and a bridge was built between cannabis growers and the police for the first time ever," says Greg. "I'd love to achieve this bridge in the UK."
So why would you need to grow nine plants if you don't intend to deal? The idea is that this one garden provides for multiple cannabis consumers who are part of a "collective"—a "separate and legally distinct group of consenting adults that wish to avoid engaging with the black-market by the communal growing and sharing of cannabis," according to the UKCSC website.