A history of cannabis UK

history of cannabis

In today’s world, cannabis is a normal topic of conversation in the UK. Whether it’s shows available on Netflix, discussions between politicians, or movements in healthcare, it looks like approaches to the drug are certainly heading for a turn. Below, we briefly look at the history of cannabis in the UK relationship with cannabis – from prohibition right through to medical exemptions. 

History of cannabis: Industrial uses

Historically, cannabis seeds were used for industrial reasons including making ropes, fishing nets, and canvas around the 10th century. This expanded into the growth and use of hemp, another part of the cannabis family. This was mandated in 1533 by King Henry VIII.  It’s thought that its industrial uses were important for English forces at a time when colonisation was happening.

This allowance is still being made today. The Home Office grants licenses to businesses who cultivate and process cannabis for fibre. This has been the case since 1993. 

History of cannabis: Recreational uses


Britain expanded its territories in the 19th century. This expansion included parts of the world, such as Southern Africa, where the recreational use of cannabis was highly popular. Concerns were raised around the impact cannabis had on behaviour within certain groups. Its popularity was also perceived as a threat, leading to attempted bans in colonies – particularly in British India

The recreational use of cannabis was first prohibited in the UK itself in 1928. Cannabis was added as an addendum to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920. A few decades later, the law around cannabis use and ownership became even more stringent. In 1971, it was listed as a Class B drug with the passage of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Although this was dropped to Class C between 2004-2009, it has since returned to the “B” classification and remains illegal today. 

History of cannabis: Medical uses

Unlike countries such as America and Canada, the UK has not – and isn’t currently looking to – legalise the drug. However, the link between cannabis and some medical conditions has caused pressure on UK politicians to reschedule their stance on its availability. 

There have been two medical cases in particular that has led to access to medical cannabis. These are the cases of epileptic children, Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingely, who both suffered life-threatening conditions before using cannabis. By taking CBD oil, these children suffered less seizures and experienced a better quality of life. Still though, that was not enough – with both families having to seek treatment outside of the UK, in accordance with its laws. 

Public pressure and outcries about the suffering of these children has successfully led to a change in position. In 2018, Jeremy Hunt (health secretary at the time) announced his support for medical cannabis. This was followed by an announcement from the Home Secretary that cannabis-based products would be made available to those in “exceptional clinical need”. 

Medical cannabis was legalised on 1 November 2018 and some medications, such as Sativex, are already being used. 

What does the future of cannabis look like in the UK?


Whether or not the UK will follow the likes of Canada remains to be seen. Afterall, cannabis is still illegal. And even though medical cannabis has been legalised, the NHS has called for further clinical trials and some specialists are even restricting access to the drug until then. 

However, the lifestyle and culture elements of cannabis seem to be picking up traction. You don’t have to look far to see CBD health supplements, edibles, and even sprays claiming to help with anxiety. As the industry continues to grow, it suggests a higher level of acceptance exists within wider society. 

Perhaps scientific research and more public pressure can help UK’s politicians to reconsider the law, but until then, it doesn’t look like there will be much change in the legal system. 

If you want to find out more about the future of the cannabis industry, follow The Leaf Desk.