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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 20 - Public Policy In Other Countries - UK

Debate in the UK

As in Canada, the debate in the UK regarding cannabis would appear to revolve around two issues: (1) decriminalization or legalization of cannabis for recreational use; and (2) the medicinal use of cannabis.

Although cannabis is now a Class C drug, its recreational use is still prohibited in the UK. Under the MDA, it is illegal to grow, produce, possess, or supply cannabis to another person. It is also an offence to allow premises to be used for growing, preparing, supplying or smoking it. Maximum penalties for cannabis offences in the UK are fairly severe (these vary throughout the EU). As in Canada, there is considerable discretion in how the law is applied and in many cases the police caution those found in possession of small amounts of cannabis. In the Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Drugs and the Law, the following was stated regarding the use of discretion, particularly with respect to cannabis:


Many cases are kept away from the courts by cautioning and compounding and, in Scotland, warning letters and fiscal fines. By far the largest increase in police cautioning in England and Wales has been for cannabis offenders, from 41% in 1990 to 55% in 1997. This has meant in practice a tripling in the number of cannabis offenders for which a caution was given, from 16,500 to 47,000. Cautions are part of an offender’s criminal record. There is no provision at present for these records to expire under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. The Government has recently issued a consultation paper proposing that this anomaly should be corrected and that cautions should be immediately spent. This would also apply to reprimands and warnings, which are to replace cautions for young people under 18 under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Cautioning is not used by H.M. Customs and Excise or in Scotland. For importation and exportation offences, compounding – a monetary penalty in lieu of prosecution – may be used in cases involving cannabis not exceeding 10 grams in weight. While compounding does not necessarily become part of an offender’s criminal record, it may be mentioned in subsequent court proceedings Its use for cannabis importation offenders fell between 1990 and 1997 from 58% to 45%.

…This discretion in the implementation of the MDA is desirable but produces anomalies in the differing regimes of cautioning and compounding, and inconsistencies in the cautioning rates between police forces. More than half of the arrests for cannabis offences result in a caution. We do not criticise the police for their extensive use of cautioning. It is currently the only realistic and proportional response. Without it, the courts would have ground to a halt. However, the use of discretion does not lessen the disproportionate attention that the law and the implementation of the law unavoidably give to cannabis and cannabis possession in particular.[1][85]


The use of cannabis for medicinal purposes has a long history in the UK. It was prescribed as a medicine in the UK until 1973. At that time, it became a drug that could not be legally used as a medicine and today its medicinal use remains prohibited. As will be discussed in the next section, the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords recommended that cannabis be made available for medicinal purposes in a 1998 report. This recommendation was rejected by the government, which indicated that before such a change could be considered, the safety and efficacy of cannabis would have to be demonstrated. G.W. Pharmaceuticals has been given permission to grow cannabis with the aim of developing a cannabis-based medicine; clinical trials have commenced in the UK.



[1][85]  Police Foundation (2000) Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, "Drugs and the Law", Chapter 7, paragraphs 28, 29 and 31.

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