Cannabis in the United Kingdom

Cannabis (Cán-na-bis) is the most widely used illegal drug in the United Kingdom. It is a plant which is not native to the British Isles but one that was probably introduced from Continental Europe towards the end of the Roman occupation. The old traditional name in Britain for Cannabis sativa is hemp and that name is still used in the United Kingdom by growers and processors of industrial cannabis, however, it is the word cannabis which is the more popular generic term to cover both the plants and plant products. A number of organisations are advocating a reform of its legality.



The Mary Rose needed tons of cannabis fibre

The oldest evidence of cannabis in Britain is of some seeds found in a well in York. .[1] Over time its cultivation spread wildly. The medical properties of cannabis have been recorded since the dawn of history and it is mentioned (as hænep) in the surviving text of an Anglo-Saxon herbal[citation needed]. However, since it appears to have been mostly grown around the coastal areas it suggests the main reason for cultivating it was undoubtedly as a source of vegetable fibre which was stronger and more durable than stinging nettle or flax. This makes it ideal for making into cordage, ropes, fishing nets and canvas. Indeed, when cannabis is grown for fibre it is sown close together so that the plants need to grow tall and strong to compete with each other for light. This encourages the cannabis plants to produces more fibre at the expense of the medically useful cannabinoid compounds.[2] [3]

In order for Henry the VIII to expand his navy he found it necessary to decree in 1533 to compel landlords to set aside 1/240 th of their tillable land, to the growing of hemp, ensuring an adequate supply of fibre.[citation needed] Elizabeth I increased production still more and went further by imposed a £5 fine on any eligible landowner who refused to grow it.[citation needed] As more fibre became available so people found other uses for it and it so it became an important part of the British economy. Eventually, demand had expanded to the point that the demand for more fibre was part of the driving force to colonize new lands. Thanks to its hardiness and ease of cultivation, it became an ideal crop to grow in the new British colonies. Moreover, the naval ships built to protect the new colonies and those built to bring the hemp back, also increased demand. As every two years or so much of their two hundred tonnes of ropes and sail cloth had to be renewed. [4]

Cannabis' enduring legacy on British culture

The cannabis plant and its products were so ubiquitous in Britain that it has left many cultural traces behind.


Place names of important centres of the former hemp industry still contain the name of hemp such as Hempriggs in Caithness and Hempland in Dumfriesshire.[citation needed]

In literature

Let gallows gape for dog, let man go free And let not hemp his wind-pipe suffocate. – Henry IV Act 3, Scene 6


Modern industrial cannabis market

Since 1993 the Home Office has been granting licences for the purposes of cultivating and processing hemp. The UK government now provides free business advice and support services for growers and processors of hemp for fibre. They can also issue licences for importing fibre in the form of hemp from abroad. [5] The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) provides help and advice with obtaining financial assistance via the Single Payment Scheme. In England further funding may be available from Rural Development Programme for England.

Medicinal cannabis

Apart from a synthetic cannabinoid called Nabilone, (which has many side effects) the only cannabis based medicine licensed for use in the UK is Sativex. The former named medication can be prescribed by a doctor to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cytotoxic chemotherapy; the latter medication is indicated only for the treatment of spasticity due to Multiple Sclerosis. For other indications approval needs to be first sought from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Meanwhile, the Dutch government contracts Bedrocan BV to produce and supply standardized medicinal cannabis which is guaranteed free from contamination in 3 varieties to cover a range of indications.[6] However, the majority of cannabis users who use it to relieve their medical conditions which can include other indications such as chronic pain, do so without legal approval.

Carduelis cannabina


Mice, rats and fowl are all known to like cannabis seed and it is a favoured food amongst some British pigeon fanciers. The Linnets' fondness of the cannabis seed has earned it the Latin species name of cannabina. By and large, cannabis seed is too expensive to be used as general feed stock but once the oil has been pressed out the remaining seed cake is still nutritious.

The plant itself has not been used as fodder, as too much makes animals sicken, but due to its unpleasant taste they will not eat it unless there is no other food available. Therefore, the soft core of the cannabis plant which remains after the fibres are removed, provides good animal bedding which can absorb more moisture than either straw or wood shavings. [7]


Cannabis is widely used throughout the United Kingdom, by people of all ages and from all socioeconomic backgrounds.[8]

Cannabis is often linked to young people beginning to smoke tobacco, unlike in North America, cannabis is often smoked with tobacco in the United Kingdom (known as a 'spliff'). This claim is often disputed however due to the frequency of smoking needed to actually get someone addicted to the nicotine in tobacco. As well as the use of tobacco when smoking cannabis, many people in Britain use a 'roach card' rather than rolling cannabis throughout, a custom not unique to the United Kingdom but far more common than in places such as America.

Boiled cannabis seed is frequently used by British sport fishermen, as fish are very fond of this as bait.[9]

Prevalence and price

Cannabis ranges in price across the country. Although generally deemed to be around £20 for an 'eighth' (of an ounce; 3.5g) in actuality the amount given can be a lot less (1.6-3.0g), in many places by more than a gram. These discrepancies tend to decrease as the nominal amount increases, acting as a 'bulk discount' reflecting economies of scale. Also in the cannabis market, inflation tends to reduce the quantity of cannabis that can be purchased for a set price, rather than increase the nominal price of a set quantity ('bag') of cannabis. However, there is a growing acceptance amongst consumers that higher-potency cannabis will be sold at smaller weights.


Cannabis is illegal to possess, grow, distribute or sell in the UK without the appropriate licences.[10] It is a Class B drug, with penalties for unlicensed dealing, unlicensed production and unlicensed trafficking of up 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.[10] The maximum penalty for unauthorised or sanctioned possession is five years in prison.[10]

Advocacy for law reform

Because prohibition has made psychotropic drugs in general very available, and without controls on adulterants or to whom they are sold, a number of organizations have been set up with the aim of reforming the law on these unregulated substances.

The current Prime Minister David Cameron, when serving in opposition, sat on the Select Committee on Home Affairs and voted to call on the Government to “initiate a discussion” within the UN about “alternative ways - including the possibility of legalisation and regulation - to tackle the global drugs dilemma”. [11]

In 2011 The Global Commission on Drug Policy backed by Richard Branson and Judi Dench called for a review[citation needed]. The Home Office response on behalf of the Prime Minister was: "We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs (sic) are illegal because they are harmful - they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities".[12]

In June 2010 it accidentally came to light that the Home office had been avoiding complying with the FOI request because it would expose the lack of evidence that its current drug policy had. Although this control of public opinion has been an open secret for a long time, such blatant exposure is a rare occasion. [13] [14] [15]

See also


  1. ^ Wild, John Peter (April 2003). Textiles in Archaeology. United Kingdom: Shire Publications. p. 22. ISBN 9780852639313. 
  2. ^ Fleming, M. P.; Clarke, R. C. (1998). "Physical evidence for the antiquity of Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae)" (PDF). Journal of the International Hemp Association (5): 80–92. 
  3. ^ Whittington, Graeme; Edwards, Kevin J. (December 1990). "The cultivation and utilisation of hemp in Scotland". Scottish Geographical Journal 106 (3): 167–173. doi:10.1080/00369229018736795. 
  4. ^ Deitch, Robert (2003) Hemp: American history revisited: the plant with a divided history. page 12. Algora Publishing. Accessed 2011-07-29
  5. ^ Business Link Dot Gov Dot UK [1] Accessed 2010-05-15
  6. ^ Bedrocan BV Official website
  7. ^ Hemcore animal bedding accessed 2010-05-15
  8. ^ Miller, Patrick; Martin Plant (2002-02-01). "Heavy cannabis use among UK teenagers: an exploration". Drug and Alcohol Dependence (Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd) 65 (3): 235–42. doi:10.1016/S0376-8716(01)00165-X. ISSN 0376-8716. PMID 11841895. Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  9. ^ John Moore; Eric Taverner (2006). The Angler's Weekend Book. Read Books. p. 109. ISBN 9781406797916. 
  10. ^ a b c "Drug Laws". United Kingdom Home Office. Retrieved 2011-07-18. 
  11. ^ The Independent on Sunday (Wednesday, 7 September 2005) Tory contender calls for more liberal drug laws. Accessed 2010-05-16
  12. ^
  13. ^ Martin Rosenbaum (08:45 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010) Home Office error reveals how FOI request handled Accessed 2010-06-27
  14. ^ The Press Association (25 June 2010) Ministers 'covered up drugs report'. Accessed 2010-06-27
  15. ^ Mark Easton (17:47 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010) Critical public interest Accessed 2010-06-27

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