Cannabis is one of the most commonly used illegal substances in the UK. While some countries have decriminalised it entirely, in the UK it was only approved for limited medical use in 2018 1 and, as of 2021, is still banned for recreational use.
Cannabis plants grow naturally around the world, in three varieties: Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, and Cannabis ruderalis.
Cannabis is normally used in its herb form, either by smoking (with or without tobacco), inhaling via a bong, or ingesting with food.
Indica plants are often illegally cultivated in the UK, as they are easy to grow indoors and contain a high amount of the active compounds tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, and is responsible for the cannabis “high”. Reactions to it vary from person to person, but the most common effects are euphoria, lethargy, increase in appetite, mild hallucinations, and anxiety. Consuming high amounts of THC is believed to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, particularly in those who are already prone to the condition.
CBD on its own is legal in the UK, provided that it meets certain specifications 2, and its oil has found increased popularity for use in health remedies, skincare, and makeup. CBD has been known to work effectively as a topical treatment for acne, as an alternative to prescribed anxiety medication, and for treating childhood epilepsy.
Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa and, as it is naturally low in THC, it is broadly legal in the UK, and it is even possible to obtain a licence to grow it. Hemp has a multitude of industrial uses, from fabric-making to food, and is an increasingly-popular ingredient in everything from non-dairy milk to health supplements.
Empirical evidence of cannabis’ medicinal properties is still being collated and, as cannabis is illegal in the UK, cannabis-based medicines are rarely prescribed by specialists 3.
There is some research 4 that suggests that endocannabinoids can slow the growth of cancerous tumours, which helped to lead to its approval for limited medical use in the UK.
THC and CBD are both found in the prescription drug Sativex, which can be prescribed as pain relief to patients with multiple sclerosis. The synthetic cannabinoid Nabilone is often prescribed for therapeutic use, as it is an effective painkiller and can also help to alleviate nausea experienced by those undergoing cancer treatment.
The majority of people who smoke cannabis mix it with tobacco, which is known to cause a large number of serious health issues.
Because of this, smoking cannabis is associated with an increased risk of developing lung and throat cancers, heart disease, and respiratory problems.
Further research is needed to look at whether this risk is solely due to the use of tobacco, or whether smoking cannabis alone presents its own health risks.
As with tobacco products, smoking cannabis while pregnant can cause health issues for both mother and child. It can also negatively affect fertility in both men and women, and so it is especially important for pregnant people and those trying to get pregnant to avoid cannabis-based products.
When combined in cannabis, CBD can counteract some of THC’s unwanted effects, such as anxiety and lethargy. This is known as the ‘entourage effect’, and research 5 indicates that taking CBD and THC together is more effective for pain relief, epilepsy, and cancer treatments than using them separately.
However, cannabis can still cause a number of undesirable effects, such as:
Its hallucinatory and anxiety-inducing effects have also been known to trigger psychotic episodes and paranoia in people with underlying mental health issues.
Socially, cannabis is considered to be a ‘gateway drug’, as it is commonly the first illicit substance tried by those who later develop drug dependencies.
While cannabis isn’t considered to be chemically/physically addictive, like substances such as heroin, people can develop a dependence known as ‘cannabis use disorder’, and some do require cannabis rehab.
This is where they begin to rely upon and crave cannabis’ psychoactive effects, and experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it, such as:
These symptoms typically affect those who habitually use heavy amounts of cannabis, and can arise within 48 hours of stopping. The symptoms normally ease off after a few days, but it can take several weeks for them to go away altogether. Learn more about overcoming a cannabis addiction.
As of 2009, Cannabis is a class B drug under The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, meaning that privately growing, dispensing, possessing, and using cannabis are all illegal in the UK.
This Act sets the maximum penalty for possession of cannabis at 5 years’ imprisonment plus an unlimited fine and sets the maximum penalty for supplying at 14 years’ imprisonment plus an unlimited fine.
Its use is only legal when a medicine containing cannabis is prescribed by a doctor, and due to cannabis’ status as a class B drug, prescriptions for these medicines are rarely given out.
If police find you in possession of cannabis without a prescription, they are able to issue an immediate warning and an on-the-spot fine of £90. Recurring incidents will inevitably go to the courts, with a potential for receiving the maximum penalties.
As mentioned earlier, use and distribution of CBD is legal and, as of 31st March 2021, only those products which have been approved by the Food Standards Agency are permitted for sale 6.
The FSA has also added a recommended daily limit of 70mg for healthy adults, and advised against its use by anyone who is:
Research into cannabis’ health implications is ongoing, and the last few years have seen it be decriminalised in several countries, as well as multiple US states.
In 2020, following a recommendation by the World Health Organisation 7, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs rescheduled cannabis, agreeing by majority vote that it carries fewer health and social risks than other illicit substances.
This opens the doors for additional research and scientific experiment, with the possibility for a future update to cannabis’ legal status in the UK.