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The Status of Marijuana Legalization in the UK

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Marijuana legalization is making great strides in the United States: medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states, recreational pot in 11, and efforts are active to bring legal cannabis to a national level. It often seems like new cannabis news is being shared every single day, as marijuana grows in acceptance and popularity as not only a medical tool but as a safe and natural way to celebrate or unwind. In certain US cities, it seems as though you can't walk 100 feet without finding a dispensary to help you get your cannabis fix.

But what about us here over the pond? The state of cannabis legalization is much different across Europe, particularly here in the United Kingdom. Marijuana is a popular substance in the UK, and the nation holds plenty of legalization supporters, though the history with cannabis is different there than it is here.

A Brief History

Like many Western nations, the United Kingdom has used cannabis for hundreds of years at least. Early evidence shows that seeds were used in the 10th century to grow cannabis for daily industrial use. Cannabis found use in sails, rope, clothing, nets, and more due to the strong nature of the plant fibers. In this case, cannabis was stronger than other fibers thus found its place in early societies as a necessary and efficient tool for survival, trade, and production.

In 1842, Irish physician William O'Shaughnessy brought cannabis over from Bengal upon his return to the UK. He experimented on the substance and studied its effects. It was not long after this that other parts of the British Empirenamely South Asia and South Africa began experimenting with cannabis as a psychoactive substance. The use soon spread around the Empire, from India to Jamaica to the United Kingdom itself. However, as the drug spread so did the attempts to criminalize it.

Efforts were made in 1838, 1871, and 1877 to outlaw the use of marijuana. Throughout the following decades, cannabis slowly became illegal to use in most British territories, and in 1928 the substance was outlawed at home in the UK. Propaganda against the drug was on par with that used in the United States and was often racist in nature and discriminatory against lower classes of society. The 1950 arrest of a group of white British men at a popular Soho club destroyed the concept that marijuana was only used by certain classes of society, and in the next two decades, marijuana arrests skyrocketed. The usual suspects were younger hip people with a penchant for social rebellion.

The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 listed cannabis as a Class B drug, meaning that possession, distribution, and such will bring about a stricter punishment than, say, Class C substances. Penalties can go as high as 14 years imprisonment for dealing, producing, and trafficking and up to 5 years for possession. Regardless, battles in legislation and society have been ongoing, and the current status of cannabis in the United Kingdom is one that faces serious opposition by a growing support system that recognizes the benefits of marijuana legalization.

Current Legal Status

Cannabis in the United Kingdom remains a Class B drug, though this briefly changed from 2004-2009 when it was listed as a Class C substance, thus lowering the severity of punishments for possession. Regardless, recreational cannabis remains the most popular illegal substance used by Brits of all ages. A study in 2017 found that over 7% of those aged 16-59 used cannabis in the previous year. And this is only the information that we have from the select few surveyed.

It's worth noting that drug arrests in the UK are predominantly made up of cannabis possessors. In 2014 it was discovered the around 67% of drug arrests involved cannabis. Race, too, played a part in who was charged and who was not. Ethnic minorities saw harsher treatment than anyone else. Blacks were convicted at almost 12 times the rate of white seven though use appeared to be less overall in the black communities.

While recreational pot is clearly illegal in the UK, medical marijuana is seen in a different light.

Over the summer of 2018 more changes came for medical cannabis. Legalization found support for those with severe clinical conditions such as cancer and epilepsy, and on 1 November 2018 medical marijuana became legal under UK law. This was due in part to the public support and acknowledgment of epileptic children who were effectively treated with cannabis. As public support grew so did the support of politicians, thus leading to a renewed discussion on the medical benefits of cannabis.

Even though medical cannabis is legal it is near impossible to obtain. Even by February 2019 no one had been given medical cannabis despite the substance becoming legal for medical treatment. Further, GP's cannot prescribe cannabis; the prescription must come from a specialist consultant. This not only makes it difficult for patients in waiting, but the decision to be so restrictive leads to more suffering than is necessary for those who choose cannabis over other more harmful prescription drugs.

Cannabis-based medicines, however, are available even if they are equally difficult to get. Drugs like Sativex or Epidiolex are available for medical cannabis patients. It is the plant and oils that are seeing the most difficulty, even if the plants and oils could be the best for broad treatment. The aforementioned drugs, Sativex and Epidiolex, treat specific ailments, namely sclerosis, and epilepsy respectively. Plant or oil forms of cannabis can be used for more applications, and it is here where patients are losing the most.

As the year progresses, many across the UK are hoping to see more movement surrounding medical cannabis. Only time will tell how effective the legalization decision has been. If anything, reforms should be considered so that the patients who need cannabis can actually obtain it instead of waiting in pain, discomfort, and agony.

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