This history of cannabis in England
Cannabis has a long and colourful history in the UK as both a medicinal and recreational drug – and one that keeps changing to this day.
Whilst our relationship with this plant has changed countless times over the years and continues to, most aren’t aware that it’s actually been on British soil for over 4,000 years!
The oldest recorded findings of cannabis were seeds discovered in a well on a former 10th century viking settlement in Micklegate, York. Historians reckon that the plant would have initially been used and cultivated for its strong and sturdy vegetable fibre to make ropes, canvases, sacks, heavy-duty clothing, and even fishing nets.
It’s difficult to believe that the now-considered-controversial cannabis was once a highly valuable and commonly traded commodity, and integral to British economy. Not only was it grown and harvested without policing or regulation (hard to imagine today!), but in 1533 Henry VIII even made it mandatory that all UK farmers cultivate the plant for industrial uses (we always had him down as a G.)
And his daughter and successor Elizabeth I clearly shared her father’s (good) tastes and followed suit by later increasing those quotas, as well as penalties for falling short of them.
Beyond its use as a durable and hardy fibre it began to become even more mainstream as multiple uses were found for it. In fact, so significant was its role in the British economy that eventually high demand played a significant driving force in colonising new lands. So, essentially you could argue that the British Empire was in part built on hemp – pretty cool ey?
Thanks to hemp’s durability and ease to harvest it turned out to be an ideal crop to grow in the new British colonies. That combined with the increase in the presence of British naval ships meant that shipping the goods became easier, which in turn lead to further increased demand.
And here’s a fun historical fact, or rather theory, some claim that the most famous Tudor/ ever playwright Willy Shakespeare sought inspiration for his famous works by smoking weed from a bong. This claim was made by South African scientist Francis Thackeray who has suggested that Shakespeare used cannabis as a "stimulant which had mind-stimulating properties" and has even found evidence to suggest that Big Will cultivated the weed in his own garden. Perhaps we ought to parapharase his famous quote to: ‘To smoke or not to smoke that is the question’… and the answer is yes!
These days, ganja has the erroneous rep of being an illegal psychoactive drug, though thankfully the tide is starting to turn and public opinion is opening up to its many medicinal, recreational and health values – thanks in part to the mainstreaming of CBD products.
So how did cannabis go from a hot commodity in the Tudor days to a class-B drug with a bad reputation?
Well in truth, it’s a road with many twists and turns, with public perspective on cannabis swinging as much as a pendulum.
For example, in Victorian England, cannabis was leveraged in the medical world after Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy brought some back with him in 1842 after studying it as a medical officer in Bengal with the East India Company.
And while cannabis was already widespread in British territories, including South Asia, Southern Africa and Jamaica, it’s really the royal stamp of approval by Queen Victoria that gives us most insight into the status of the weed at that time. The monarch was prescribed cannabis by her doctor to relieve period pain – and we reckon the Queen of England enjoyed its perks beyond pain relief!
However, the invention of the syringe at the end of the 19th century marked an abrupt end to its widespread medicinal use. Since cannabis can’t be dissolved in water, it can’t be injected, which meant that it was shafted for other injectable drugs (including the recently developed aspirin) that had a faster effect.
Where did it all go wrong?
It was the British colonies that started prohibiting cannabis before Great Britain herself. Attempts at criminalising cannabis in British India were made and mooted in 1838, 1871, and 1877. In 1894 the British Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, perhaps unsurprisingly considering their name, declared that "little injury" was caused to society by using cannabis. However, the legality of weed in the colonies started falling like dominoes, it was banned in Mauritius in 1840, Singapore in 1870, Jamaica in 1913, East Africa in 1914, Sierra Leone in 1920, South Africa in 1922 etc etc.
Britain itself was slow on the uptake, it wasn’t until 1928 and in accordance with the 1925 International Opium Convention in Geneva that the UK first banned cannabis as a drug and added it as an addendum to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920.
Up until this point, hemp was mainly cultivated for industrial purposes, whereas cannabis wasn’t used so much recreationally, but rather as a prescription by doctors for medicinal use. However, after officially being listed as a dangerous drug there was a subsequent sharp decline in the use of cannabis-based medicines in the UK.
Between the World Wars, cannabis remained a fringe issue and was largely associated with the "coloured seamen of the East End and clubs frequented by Negro theatrical performers" (according to Marek Kohn in Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground.)
It wasn’t until a 1952 drugs bust on Club Eleven in Soho, which lead to the arrest of a group of young white British men, that public perception started to shift and authorities started to clampdown.
In the 1960’s cannabis use soared in popularity, but this led to increased policing and fining of possession and sale. This decade saw a dramatic increase in arrests of people (from varying backgrounds) which continued well into the ‘70’s.
In 1968, eager to investigate the effects of the popular drug, the Home Office released the Wootton Report. The investigation concluded that "There is no evidence that this activity is causing violent crime or aggression, anti-social behaviour, or is producing in otherwise normal people conditions of dependence or psychosis requiring medical treatment."
But despite this deduction, just three years later, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 put cannabis on the list as a Class B drug where it has remained to this day (besides a brief period in 2004-2009 where it was classified as Class C.)
And now, more than thirty years after the Wootton Report, it is still illegal to grow, produce, possess or supply cannabis to another person.
Where are we at today?
Cannabis laws continue to be challenged in the UK courts with varying success. However, in a breakthrough case a change was made to the law in 2018 when cannabis was legalised for medicinal purposes. This was triggered by a media storm covering the case of the mother of Billy Caldwell (a 12-year-old boy with epilepsy) having medicinal cannabis oil confiscated at Heathrow Airport on re-entry into the country. Media buzz led to a huge nationwide legal challenge, and the subsequent change in legislation. As a result, today it is now possible to obtain medical cannabis with a specialised doctor's prescription (but only for the treatment of epilepsy.)
More recently, thanks to mainstream use of CBD for health benefits, public opinion has once again started to shift in favour of cannabis use. In the UK, CBD extracted from cannabis is legal if it contains no more than 0.2% THC. But there are still marketing limitations, as producers and sellers are banned from making any direct claims that CBD can treat illness or improve one's health.
As we can see, Britain’s relationship with cannabis is long and chequered and constantly evolving. Although, as people become acclimatised to CBD thanks to widespread use, public sympathy is on the up for cannabis’s medicinal functions – and hopefully recreational in the near future!