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When will the UK Legalise Marijuana?

The debate raging across parts of the world concerning the legalisation of marijuana has not escaped the UK. With a number of countries already having taken steps towards legalising its medicinal and recreational use, the UK must now look at the precedents set by the US, Spain and other places on how to move forward.

It is currently illegal to either supply or possess cannabis and cultivating plants can see you facing jail time too. Despite this, cannabis has already proven to be quite the black sheep when it comes to how the legal system treats drugs.

uk-london-marijuanaMarijuana is categorised as a Class B substance, meaning that mere possession can potentially lead to an unlimited fine and up to five years in prison. The reality of how police forces treat marijuana, however, is very different. It is generally recognised that someone found with a small amount of cannabis will initially be given a formal warning, a fine if they are caught a second time, and finally arrest if caught a third time. None of these will directly result in a criminal record, and it is only if an individual is arrested then charged that this becomes a serious possibility.

Yet the status of cannabis in British society is complex and extends beyond the literal word of the law. Cannabis plants have many uses beyond just their psychoactive effects and can be utilised for the treatment of medical conditions too. This is often the basis on which cannabis legally circumvents blanket drug laws. So powerful are the medicinal properties of cannabis that in October 2017 a Bill was put before Prime Minister Theresa May and Parliament to ‘allow the production, supply, possession and use of cannabis and cannabis resin for medicinal purposes; and for connected purposes.’

While the finer points of the bill have not yet been disclosed to the public, a second hearing is due in the House of Commons in late February 2018. These may only be the initial steps in a long parliamentary process required to change the law, but it is a beginning nonetheless.

There currently exists a number of cannabis based products that are sold legally as health supplements or for cosmetic purposes. None of these can be used to experience the psychoactive effects the plant is better known for, however. One marijuana-derived product that has bypassed the law is Sativex, a spray made from a formulated extract of the plant. This is sprayed into the mouth and used to treat the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), offering a potential solution when other methods have failed.

Interestingly, Sativex is made of real marijuana extract as opposed to a synthetic concoction and actually contains the psychoactive component of cannabis called THC. This means that it is technically possible for users of Sativex to experience a high of sorts, though it would be too weak for those seeking recreational fun with the product. Regardless, the commercial sale of an item containing THC marks a significant step towards legalisation.

Another fairly widespread marijuana-derived product is CBD (Cannabidiol), a non-psychoactive component of the plant that has found widespread use treating those suffering with a range of medical problems. As there is no ‘high’ possible from using CBD the law on products that utilise it are less stringent, though since December 2016 such goods must be properly licensed before they can be legally sold.

These licensing requirements mean it has become necessary for importers, manufacturers and retailers to exercise caution in their dealings with CBD-based products. Subsequently customers must now contend with a more limited supply of these items and arguably increased costs too. Both of these factors make it more difficult for those suffering from certain medical conditions to acquire the CBD products that help them maintain a decent standard of living.

uk-research-marijuana-theresa-mayDespite this the tide seems to be turning on the stigmatisation that has plagued cannabis. Along with the largely positive precedent set by other countries, initiatives looking into the personal, medical and societal effects of marijuana are leading to a shift in general perception. One such body taking a closer look is the Oxford Research Programme.

The programme promises a thorough and non-partisan investigation into how cannabis-based products can be harnessed for medicinal use. The results of this research could play a significant role in loosening laws around their manufacture and sale, allowing a sizeable proportion of the population access to remedies for their medical needs.

The hurdles that will be encountered whilst trying to pass bills relating to the easing of cannabis laws will depend on the political climate, however. The current Conservative government headed by Theresa May is not historically known for its liberal attitude towards controlled substances. This places Theresa May in an interesting position as the national debate on cannabis legalisation heats up.

As the video below illustrates, Theresa May takes the view that when all things are considered cannabis remains an overall negative influence on society. Her acknowledgements of its medical and recreational benefits are overshadowed by its reputation as a ‘gateway drug’ and its role as a catalyst for mental health conditions.

Theresa May’s views are not entirely without evidence, with marijuana being a key component in many of the situations she outlines. Yet she fails to consider the role of alcohol as an even more significant and dangerous gateway substance, along with the slim chances of marijuana actually exacerbating pre-existing mental health issues in an individual.

Whilst an adverse view of cannabis could be expected of Theresa May’s Conservative government, there are other parties that hold a more charitable opinion of the plant. Unsurprisingly the Liberal Democrats lead the way, intending to bring about a fully regulated marijuana industry in the UK. Labour, however, still support current drug prohibition laws, whilst the Greens have been in support of decriminalisation since the party’s formation.

Despite the current political climate and Theresa May’s aversion to marijuana, its legalisation feels more of a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Cannabis is gaining popularity both as a safer, less destructive recreational substance and as a life-improving medicinal aid, and it is only a matter of time until the legal system embraces it as such.

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MSNL Team / 29th January 2018

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