Since Neolithic times, cultures in Asia have raised the cannabis plant for its physical and pharmacological qualities. The plant gradually found its way to Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
In Britain, the oldest evidence of cannabis dates back to the 10th century York, according to Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany. Discovered in a well, seeds are associated with a Viking settlement that was located there at the time.
Because of its strong, natural fibers, people have grown the cannabis (hemp) plant in Britain since then. Historically, many primarily used it to manufacture ropes, fishing nets, and canvas. In fact, the British Navy’s need for hemp ropes and sails was so great that in 1533, King Henry VIII ordered landowners to start growing allotments of hemp, according to Hemp: American History Revisited: The Plant with a Divided History. Queen Elizabeth I later implemented a £5 (about £1,200 today) penalty on anybody who owned more than 60 acres of land and failed to fulfill the mandate.
Nowadays, farmers grow hemp for very different reasons. But alongside medical cannabis it’s still a vital plant for the nation.
Recreational Cannabis in the U.K.
Today, U.K. officials prohibit recreational cannabis. Possession of cannabis is classified as a Class B drug (along with methamphetamine, ketamine, and mephedrone). It is a serious violation that may put one in jail for a long time, according to the U.K. government.
For individuals caught possessing cannabis, they might face up to five years in jail, an “unlimited fine,” or both. If caught producing and/or distributing, a one could get up to 14 years of imprisonment and an “unlimited fine.”
However, cannabis is the most used illicit substance in the country, reports BBC News.
Consequently, British police have softened their actions in cases of possessing small quantities of the plant, according to The Guardian.
Now, officials consider possession of an ounce or less as “personal use;” they might issue only a warning or on-the-spot fine, reports Politics.co.uk.
Medical Cannabis in the U.K.
While regulations for recreational cannabis in the U.K. remain unyielding, medical cannabis is available by prescription.
In 2018, the Secretary of State revised the cannabis regulations, according to the U.K. government. It was moved from a Schedule I substance (a category with no therapeutic value and requires a license in order to obtain and store) to Schedule II (a category that is still tightly controlled but has a recognized medical use and can be prescribed in certain conditions).
The U.K. government allows medical cannabis only in two forms: pill and oil. CBD oil is widely popular and easily accessible. In fact, experts estimate that the number of people in the country regularly using CBD oil and other products is around 1.3 million, according to Vitality CBD. However, regulations specify that the maximum permitted amount of THC in CBD oils is 0.2%, reports BBC.
As for other CBD products, says the Home Office, “[if they contain] any controlled cannabinoids, unintentionally or otherwise (e.g. THC or THCV), then it is highly likely that the product would be controlled.”
In 2019, 11% of the U.K. population (about 6 million people) consumed CBD products, according to Vitality CBD. The current U.K. CBD market is now actually larger than the total Vitamin D (£145 million/$192 million) and Vitamin C market (£119 million/$158 million) combined.
In fact, a 2019 Center for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) conducted study showed a huge growth in use of cannabinoid products. “The U.K. CBD market is currently growing at double digits and expected to be just short of £1 [billion, or $1.3 billion] in 2025,” reads the study.
In our day and age, hemp surely differs in benefits and needs from those in the Elizabethan era. Its fibers can make everything from paper and construction materials to bio-plastics and livestock bedding.
Recently, hemp has also drawn a lot of attention because of its potential to absorb carbon and develop into circular systems, according to Haeckels. Such systems strive to eliminate waste while also endlessly reusing and recycling resources. The collected carbon might theoretically be kept indefinitely, depending on the plant’s eventual use. Hempcrete is lauded for its capability to be a carbon-intensive building material while also acting as a long-term carbon store.
Besides that, the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) noted that “the production of hemp is carbon negative, which means it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere during its growth than is emitted by the equipment used to harvest, process and transport it.”
To legally grow and process hemp for industrial purposes, the U.K. government requires companies to have a special license. The Home Office only issues such licenses to those who grow only hemp plants from certified seed types with a THC concentration of less than 0.2%.
Also, under an industrial hemp license, operators must destroy the plant’s legally regulated components (such as the leaves and flowers).
However, industrial hemp is legal for industrial applications and/or the extraction of seeds for oil. Operators can use the oil in cosmetics and dietary supplements, as long as it has an allowed THC level.
Latest Regulations and Developments
In March 2016, the Green Party of England and Wales, and the Scottish Green Party joined the Liberal Democratic party to support cannabis legalization. Liberal Democrats became the first major party in the U.K. to back up legalization, reported The Independent.
Looking at the size of the U.K. cannabis market and the potential consequences of legalization, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) released a study which reports that the illegal market in the U.K. is worth £2.6 billion ($3.4 billion) per year, with 255 tons sold to 3 million consumers in 2016/17. It also assumes that if cannabis were legal, tax revenues would transcend £1 billion ($1.3 billion) annually.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) issued a recommendation in November 2019 regarding the use of cannabis-based medical products to treat intractable nausea and vomiting, chronic pain, spasms, and severe treatment-resistant epilepsy. NICE is also working on an assessment of the use of CBD in combination with clobazam to treat seizures caused by Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
In September 2020, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) of the U.K. released a long-awaited statement on the listing of cannabis-related businesses. While recreational cannabis companies will not be on the official list, U.K.-based medicinal cannabis and CBD oil companies, as well as international medicinal cannabis companies whose operations would be lawful if carried out in the U.K., will be.
Currently, 43% of Brits support recreational cannabis legalization, according to the latest survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies. That is up from 41% in July 2020. Opposition has dropped from 32% in July to 29%, while the remaining 24% of voters continue to be impartial.