Cannabis Legislation in the UK, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Alasdair Fraser

Will the United Kingdom become the next in a string of countries to take the plunge and decriminalise cannabis? That is the question on many lips as the debate about the much-maligned plant returns to the limelight in Britain. 

Things intensified when Baron Hague of Richmond, former leader of the Conservative party and Lords member, spoke out in favour of a radical rethink to our cannabis prohibition laws. However, the excitement around a legislative landslide was quickly quashed by Home Secretary Sajid Javid when he declared government was exclusively considering legislation for medicinal purposes.  

History of Hemp

Cannabis use is as old as human civilisation. Its cultivation dates back around six thousand years, where we find the first signs of hemp’s usage in ropes, textiles, and paper. Cannabis has been used extensively for its medicinal properties for at least four thousand years, spreading gradually from India into western Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. 

Historical use of medical cannabis is particularly interesting as many of its current applications were well known in Arabic, Indian and Chinese medicine, such as chronic pain relief, as a laxative, and for the treatment of epilepsy. However, the plant saw limited use in western medicine, only appearing in noteworthy amounts in the 19th century. 

The primary thrust of medical marijuana has come through the much-publicised stand-off between state legislators and the federal government in the United States. The contention resides around whether federal law, which deems cannabis a scheduled and highly illegal substance, should trump states’ laws, which in many cases take more liberal approaches to the drug. 

Pot Policy

The debate is not a new one, but in recent years it has increasingly become a losing battle for the pro-ban crowd as governments the world around begin to experiment with legalisation, regulation, and decriminalisation. From Antigua and Barbuda to Portugal, the war on drugs is being rejected in favour of education, rules, and support. In my native Antigua, the prime minister went as far as apologising to the Rastafarian community for years of misunderstanding and oppression. In Portugal, the government decided that it is better to support addicts and drug users, as opposed to straining police and prison services as seen in the US. Canada even has just passed laws paving the way for recreational marijuana consumption. 

Across South America and Europe, states have been slowly moving toward decriminalisation of personal use and the exploration of cannabis as a medicinal substance. Yet, in Britain, the government remains staunchly opposed to the plant, with the latest developments being more a response to the cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley. 

Policy in Britain regarding marijuana has always been a delicate dance between blatant misinformation and cautious politicking. In 2009, a government drugs adviser DrDavid Nutt was forced to quit after he stated that cannabis, among other scheduled drugs, were less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Six years later, the government continued to claim the risks of marijuana far outweighed the benefits, dousing a petition with over 200,000 signatures with a blanket rejection of reform. 

Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley

Charlotte Caldwell and her son Billy, who suffers from up to 100 epileptic seizures a day, have become the rallying cry against the government’s often callous approach to medicinal cannabis. The mother, who “openly smuggled” a bottle of cannabis oil had her son’s medication confiscated when entering the country through Heathrow airport. She proceeded to enter into a frank conversation with Home Office officials who were warned that withholding her son’s medication could be life-threatening.

Alfie Dingley, another epilepsy patient, has also been a lightning rod for pro-medical marijuana. His mother only recently secured a license for her six-year-old son's life-saving medication. Without the drug, Alfie faces up to 150 potentially fatal seizures a month. 

Responding to the controversy, Javid announced to Commons that “‘[i]t has become clear to me that the position we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory,” and that he had “come to the conclusion that it is time to review the scheduling of cannabis.”

However, at the time of writing this story, the government has made some passing promises to review regulations regarding lifesaving drugs derived from cannabis. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Image Credit: Chmee2 @Wikipedia

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