The road to legalisation? Cannabis legislation in Britain and America

    The law concerning the production and consumption of cannabis, including its enforcement, varies significantly both between and within the UK and US. Over the last few years US cannabis legislation has undergone something of a revolution, with a significant number of states either legalising or decriminalising the drug for medical and/or recreational purposes. This process looks set to continue in the near future. By contrast UK law has remained largely static, with the most significant change being the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA) decision to register CBD oil derived from Cannabidiol as a medical product. Beyond this there has been little change to cannabis law, though there has been considerable variation in the willingness of police forces to enforce the existing legislation.

    In the UK cannabis is registered as a Class B illegal drug, meaning the theoretical punishment for possession and production is ‘up to 5 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both’ and ‘up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both’ respectively. In practice though the penalty for possession is most likely to be a warning or on the spot fine. Cannabis was reclassified as a Class B drug from Class C in 2009 and this continues to be the source of controversy, with the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee recommending this decision be reversed in 2012. The most important recent change in cannabis law was the MHRA’s decision to register CBD, one of the chemical components of cannabis, as a ‘medical product’ meaning licenced medicines containing it can be sold legally. CBD oil was first proscribed on the NHS in April 2017.

    Whilst the law has remained relatively static the willingness of certain police forces to implement it has changed dramatically in recent years. In July 2015 Durham Constabulary decided to only target individuals growing cannabis for recreational purposes if they were being ‘blatant’ or following a complaint. Since then similar policies have been implemented by police forces in Derbyshire, Dorset and Surrey. There is some support for cannabis legalisation in the UK. The Green Party has supported this policy since 1990, whilst at the 2017 General Election the Liberal Democrats pledged to legalise cannabis, sold from licenced stores, in a move they claimed would raise £1 billion a year in tax revenues. An OBR poll published in April 2016 found that 47% of the public support the legalisation of cannabis via licenced shops, whilst 39% are opposed.

    A cannabis factory in Birmingham following a police raid in 2013.

    However whilst both of the main political parties remain sceptical or outright hostile there is little possibility of dramatic chance over the next few years. Neither the Conservative or Labour manifesto for the 2017 General Election suggested significant change, though Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has indicated that he personally supports the legalisation of cannabis for medical but not recreational purposes.

    In contrast America has seen dramatic change in legislation around cannabis in recent years. Whilst the drug remains technically illegal at a federal level this is an area where state law takes precedence, and a number of states have legalised or decriminalised the drug. At present the sale and possession of recreational cannabis is legal in eight states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and Washington) and the District of Columbia. This policy was voted for most recently by California, Nevada and Massachusetts on 9 November 2016, though a similar proposal was turned down on the same day in Arizona. The use of cannabis for medical reasons, often broadly defined, is legal in a total of 29 states. The first state to permit this was California in 1996, whilst the most recent was West Virginia in April of this year.

    In a number of American states where cannabis hasn’t been legalised possession of the drug has been decriminalised. This means that whilst citizens can’t consume cannabis with impunity, if they are caught they won’t end up with either a permanent criminal record or jail sentence – cannabis possession is treated akin to a minor traffic infringement. At present 13 states which haven’t legalised cannabis possession have decriminalised it, including the likes of Maryland, Ohio and Vermont. In addition 35 American cities have decriminalised cannabis possession, including major cities like New York, Chicago and Miami.

    A cannabis shop in Colorado, USA. 

    The trend in America is strongly in the direction of further legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis sale and consumption, and it’s likely that the drug will become legally accessible in additional states in the coming years. States which could legalise the drug for recreational use in the coming year include Arizona, which narrowly rejected a similar proposal last year, Rhode Island, New Jersey and potentially Delaware. A number of states could also permit cannabis for medical use, most notably Kentucky where Senator Perry Clark recently introduced a bill to this effect. However whilst reform continues on a state level there is no indication that cannabis will be legalised at a federal level in the near future. President Obama did entertain this possibility in 2015, should enough states liberalise their laws, but there are no indications that President Trump is thinking of doing likewise.


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