What is cannabis?

Cannabis is a durable hemp plant. The cannabis plant can be used to produce a number of products including seeds, pulp, and medicine. The pulp is used as fuel and to make paper, the seed is used in foods, and the oil from the seed can be used as a base for paints and varnishes. The blossoms and leaves of the hemp plant produce a sticky resin, which has historically been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, and for just as long for recreational drug use.

The compound that gives cannabis its mind-altering properties is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC.


Early explorers and botanists placed the origins of the cannabis or hemp plant in central Asia.

The plant was used in the empires of ancient China about five thousand years ago, and has also been used as part of many religious practices.

In more recent history, cannabis has been used by writers and others artists as a source of inspiration and to aid imagination. For example, the books 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass' were thought to be written while Lewis Carroll was using cannabis.

In the early 1900s, cannabis was popular both as a recreational and a medicinal compound and it is rumoured to have been given to Queen Victoria by her doctor to relieve period pain. The development of superior alternatives, such as the invention of the syringe for rapid drug inducement and the development of aspirin, led to the reduced use of cannabis in medicine.

Cannabis was first made illegal in the UK in 1928. The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was later introduced to provide guidance on controlled drugs, and cannabis was classified as a 'class B' drug.

There has subsequently been a change in the Government's stance on cannabis, largely in response to changing public perception towards the drug.

In 2001 the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee carried out a major study into drugs, entitled 'The Government's Drugs Policy: Is it working?'. The report called for a major shake-up of the Government's drugs policy, concentrating on education and harm reduction for users rather than criminal sanctions. The report also recommended the re-classification of cannabis to a class C drug. A report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in 2001 recommended the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

In 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that he might permit the medical use of cannabis if clinical trials of the drug were successful.

In January 2004, cannabis was downgraded to a class C drug across the country.

In March 2005, Home Secretary Charles Clarke asked the advisory council on the misuse of drugs (ACMD) to examine new evidence on the harmfulness of cannabis and consider whether this changed their assessment of cannabis as a class C drug. In a report in January 2006, the council concluded that cannabis should remain a class C drug, and the Home Office accepted this.

However, the Home Secretary said a programme of public education was needed to raise understanding about the implications of cannabis consumption. The campaign was delivered in partnership with the police and also aimed to publicise the penalties for dealing, producing, and using cannabis.

After ten years of liberalising attitudes and policy under the Labour government, Prime Minister Gordon Brown signalled in 2007 that he would consider reclassifying cannabis as a Class B drug. Ministers appeared sympathetic to evidence that cannabis was getting stronger, due to the greater availability of skunk, and the reported links between cannabis use and mental illness.

The renewed debate sparked a flurry of confessions by senior ministers that they had smoked the drug in their youth. Among them was the woman in charge of the review, the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

In May 2008, the government announced its decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Following debates in both Houses of Parliament reclassification came into effect on 26th January 2009.


Whether cannabis should be legalised, decriminalised or reclassified are all controversial issues, as are any Government attempts to reform the law on drug use.

Debates about drugs have often lumped 'soft drugs' such as cannabis together with 'hard drugs' like heroin and cocaine, if not by ascribing the same physiological and social effects to each, then by regarding the soft drugs as a 'gateway' to hard drug use.

Medical opinion remains divided over the effects of cannabis on users' mental and physical health and on its addictive properties.

In 2001, the Government began a major policy shift on cannabis by conducting a trial in Lambeth, South London, for dealing with cannabis possession offences. Officers in the area would no longer arrest individuals for possession but instead issue a verbal warning and confiscate the substance. The rationale was that by relaxing the current procedures police would be freed up to deal with more serious offences.

However, the scheme caused outcry among some religious and community groups who claimed the Government had 'gone soft' on drugs, sending the wrong message out to youngsters and letting dealers 'get away with it'.

But advocates of legalising cannabis say that its widespread use undermines the law and criminalises otherwise law-abiding users. They also call for a change in the law on libertarian grounds and refute the suggestion that cannabis use leads to harder drugs.

Although it is questionable whether cannabis use always leads to hard drug abuse, drug dealers rarely discriminate between the varieties, and many fear that decriminalisation of cannabis will prop up hard drug dealing and associated organised crime.

The government's decision in 2008 to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug was highly controversial, not least because it rejected the findings of a review by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs carried out at the request of the Prime Minister.

The ACMD report, 'Cannabis: Classification and Public Health', published in May 2008, concluded that "after a most careful scrutiny of the totality of the available evidence, the majority of the Council's members consider - based on its harmfulness to individuals and society - that cannabis should remain a Class C substance."

Nevertheless, the ACMD emphasised that in their opinion the use of cannabis was "a significant public health issue" which could "unquestionably cause harm to individuals and society". But the council advised that public health strategies developed under the auspices of the UK's chief medical officers, which were designed to minimise cannabis use, would be far more effective than reclassification or criminal justice measures.

The government accepted 20 of the report's 21 recommendations, rejecting recommendation 3, that "Cannabis should remain a class C drug". Reclassification of cannabis to Class B was, the government said, "a preventative measure" which "takes account of its known risks to health as well as the potential long-term impacts on health where the evidence is not conclusive."

It added: "Reclassifying cannabis to Class B will reinforce our national message that cannabis is harmful and illegal, and will help to drive the enforcement priorities to reverse the massive growth in commercial cultivation."

Disagreements between the Government and the ACMD over drugs classification continued, culminating in the dismissal of the ACMD chair, Professor David Nutt, in November 2009, following his frequent public criticisms of the government's drugs policy. Two of his colleagues then resigned from the ACMD; Dr Les King, and Marion Walker, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's representative on the council.


Cannabis was reclassified from Class C to Class B in January 2009.

Penalties for supply, dealing, production and trafficking:
The maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment.

Penalties for possession:
The maximum penalty is five years imprisonment.

Young people in possession of cannabis:
A young person found to be in possession of cannabis will be arrested and taken to a police station where they can receive a reprimand, final warning or charge depending on the seriousness of the offence.
Following one reprimand, any further offence will lead to a final warning or charge. Any further offence following a warning will normally result in criminal charges. After a final warning, the young offender must be referred to a Youth Offending Team to arrange a rehabilitation programme.
This police enforcement is consistent with the structured framework for early juvenile offending established under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Adults in possession of cannabis:
Anyone caught in possession of cannabis could be arrested.
Alternatively, police may:
issue a warning (primarily for first-time offenders)
issue a penalty notice for disorder, with an on-the-spot fine of £80

Source: Home Office - 2011


"The regular use of cannabis is known to be associated with an increase in the risk of later developing psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia. If the recent increase in availability of stronger forms of cannabis does lead to an increase in total use by some people, this might also lead to an increase in their future risk of developing mental health problems. Nobody knows the answer to this question yet..."

FRANK - 2011

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