Global Report: United Kingdom

In Feature Stories, Global by Dr. Tim Sandle, Ph.D.

Despite a long association of cannabis use in the U.K. as a lifestyle drug, marijuana has remained illegal, classified as a Class B drug (the second most dangerous group of controlled drugs). In the U.S., cannabis is a Schedule I drug, the only category of controlled substances that may not be prescribed by a physician

The illegal status has, for the most part, extended to the use of medical marijuana (cannabis was first made illegal in the UK in 1928, and medical use was outlawed in 1973). Marijuana has been deemed illegal in spite of medical groups voicing their support for the controlled use of medical marijuana. For example, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences reports there are sufficient grounds for running several clinical trials into the medical benefits of cannabis.

In addition, the British Medical Association has argued in a report (‘Therapeutic Uses of Cannabis‘) that doctors should be allowed to prescribe medical marijuana for patients with particular conditions.

In an odd twist, European Union citizens who are taking prescribed medical products containing cannabis are permitted to be in possession of cannabis while freely travelling throughout the UK, whereas a British citizen with the same product would potentially face arrest.

Several clinical trials have been run within the U.K. During the 1990s two major trials into its therapeutic uses were given grants worth a total of £1.5 million by the Medical Research Council. In the 2000s, medical researchers at the University of Nottingham were provided a grant by the British Heart Foundation to study endocannabinoids (natural substances produced by the body which bind to the same receptors as cannabinoids from cannabis) to see if the combination with marijuana leads to a reduction in strokes.

The most recent trial to report was the MUSEC trial in 2012. This study involved 279 people taking a cannabis-based pill or placebo. The trial showed higher proportions of people on the active treatment reporting reductions in muscle stiffness, spasms and pain and improved sleep quality.

To date, aside from the synthetic cannabinoid nabilone, only one cannabis-based medicine has been licensed for medical-prescription in the U.K. (administered as a nasal spray for the alleviation of the symptoms of multiple scleroses). Nabilone is permitted to offset the feelings of treat nausea and vomiting arising from chemotherapy.

A limited number of cannabis-derived predicts have been licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (who enforce pharmaceutical products). However, the few products available remain difficult for patients to obtain because many health providers refuse to prescribe them due to their cost.

The strongest scientific call for medical marijuana trials has come from Professor David Nutt, a former member of the UK government’s Committee on Safety of Medicines. Nutt argued in 2012 that cannabis be made available for medical and research purposes, especially for therapeutic uses for conditions such as schizophrenia and depression. Nutt is quoted as saying: “Regulations, which are arbitrary, actually make it virtually impossible to research these drugs. The effect these laws have had on research is greater than the effects that [George] Bush stopping stem cell research has had because it’s been going on since the 1960s.”

In the late 1990s, the debate even extended to the UK’s second parliamentary chamber, with the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee calling for research into the medical benefits of cannabis. The 1998 report stated: “We consider it undesirable to prosecute genuine therapeutic users of cannabis who possess or grow cannabis for their own use. This unsatisfactory situation underlines the need to legalise cannabis preparations for therapeutic use.” The recommendation was subsequently rejected by the U.K. legislature (the House of Commons).

The most notable non-medical figure to advocate the use of medical marijuana is the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles. Prince Charles once suggested to a multiple sclerosis patient that medicinal marijuana might be useful for her to alleviate pain.

A number of activists groups in the U.K. are campaigning for a change to the law to allow marijuana to be used to alleviate medical conditions. These include NORML UK Medical Cannabis Team and Cannabis Law Reform (Clear-UK). For example, a stated aim of Clear-UK is “to promote as a matter of urgency and compassion the prescription of medicinal cannabis by doctors.”

One campaign organisation, the Drug Equality Alliance has provided legal assistance for disabled medical-cannabis users to fight for what they believe to be the indelible right to take marijuana to overcome pain.

Although the use of medical marijuana is illegal, several people who need the drug for its pain-relieving properties grow cannabis at home for their personal use. One such UK user is David Hopkins, who states: “A very large and growing community of people with medical complaints such as severe chronic pain use cannabis for medicinal purposes without the after-effects and damage associated with many of today’s commonly-prescribed medications.”

In summary:


  • Medical marijuana use in the U.K. is very limited; this stems in part from marijuana being classed as a drug with no medical value and severe legal restrictions on its social use.
  • Respected medical figures like Professor David Nutt (chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London) have called for research into the medical benefits of marijuana. Even at the political level, working parties have requested the use of medical marijuana to be investigated.
  • Some clinical trials have taken place under “special licences” but these have led to only one licensed medication.
  • There are several active campaign groups in the UK seeking a reform in the law to allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for certain illnesses.
  • Some imported licensed products are allowed for special class patients but these remain hard to get and are costly to the National Health Service.