Cannabis is one of the most widely used plants in history.
No other plant has had such a chequered past. (Here are a few examples): Siberian royalty smoked it medicinally; Henry VII of England and founding father of the USA George Washington passed laws requiring farmers to grow it; Queen Victoria’s menstrual pains were subdued by it; Peter Tosh’s considered it a religious requirement and was inspired to pen the subversive anthem 'Legalize It’ in response to prohibition.
The evidence is clear - cannabis has been used in ceremonies, and highly valued as a currency and commodity for nearly 5,000 years. Above all these uses, the historical record shows that it has been the most valued for its medicinal properties. It is often forgotten that cannabis products were readily available in pharmacies during the 19th century in the UK.
All this changed in the UK with the introduction of the 1928 Dangerous Drug Act which reclassified cannabis as an illicit drug. This Act set in motion a process which culminated in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, a controversial piece of legislation which has remained unchanged since.
Globally attitudes are changing. In the United States alone, cannabis is now used in over 24 States. Medical researchers have discovered and developed treatments for conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and the symptoms of cancer.
Despite this surmounting evidence, the United Kingdom still criminalises medicinal cannabis users. Scroll through the interactive timeline to learn more about the history of cannabis and its current legal and medicinal incarnations in the UK and abroad.
The discovery of THC and CBD paved the path for research into the medicinal and therapeutic potential of the cannabis plant and the study of its effect on the brain.
Despite many political hurdles Mecoulam's research team pressed ahead with its research.
In 1992 Mechoulam’s team discovered a chemical made by the human body that binds to the same receptor as THC. This chemical, now known as an endocannabinoid, is the brain's own built-in THC. Mechoulam named this endocannabinoid anandamine, after the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning “supreme joy.”
Just as the active compounds in opium (morphine) led to the discovery of the endorphin system in the brain, Mechoulam's research investigating the active compound in cannabis (THC) lead to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. This vital system, also located in the brain, affects appetite, mood, memory and immune health.
Mechoulam and his colleagues' research demonstrated that cannabinoids found in cannabis, such as THC and CBD, imitate human endocannabinoids, compounds we naturally produce. Human endocannabinoids control vital health processes – people suffering from endocannabinoid deficiencies, seen in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, colitis, fibromyalgia and epilepsy often feel improvements in their condition when they take cannabinoids.
When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids bind to receptor sites throughout the brain and body. Different cannabinoids have different effects depending on which receptors they bind to. By aiming the right cannabinoid at the right receptors, different types of relief are achievable. This concept is the keystone of cannabis as medicine.
CB1 and CB2 receptors are found throughout the body. When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids like THC and CBD attach themselves onto the CB1 and CB2 receptors. This interaction can be best understood by thinking of the cannabinoids as a key and the receptors as a lock. When the receptors are "locked," the body is fortified and less immune to symptoms of chronic diseases or pain. Stimulating the endocannabinoid system with cannabis can provide relief to those suffering from endocannabinoid system deficiencies.
Produced naturally in many animal species including humans, endocannabinoids work together with the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), one of the body's oldest and most important physiologic systems.
These are the cannabinoids found uniquely in the cannabis plant and are at the forefront of medical cannabis research. Cannabis’ full potential is yet unknown, but at least 15 cannabinoids have proven medicinal value. Since the 1930s, scientific research has been hindered by federal and international drug laws. As countries like the USA rapidly ratify medicinal and recreational legislation, research funding, scientific discoveries and quantatative case studies demonstrating the medicinal benefits of the plant have begun to soar.
These compounds are produced in a laboratory. Forms of synthetic cannabinoids are available by prescription in a number of countries including the USA, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Prescribed under its international nonproprietary name (INN), they are commonly given to for people suffering from the negative side effects of chemotherapy and other life-crippling illness and diseases.
Legal highs, such as 'Spice' and 'K2' are marketed as cannabinoids, however when submitted for laboratory testing, they do not match the profile. Synthetic cannabinoids should not be confused with these dangerous, toxic substances.
These figures are based on drug-related deaths where a single substance was found in the body of the deceased.
Research shows that medicinal cannabis can replace some, if not all, of these commonly prescribed drugs with side-effects that can be fatal.
It is extremely rare to die from a cannabis overdose.
The 'Schafer Report' - commissioned by the US Government in 1972 - is still widely accepted by scientists and pathologists today as the leading quantitative piece of medical research into the harmful effects of cannabis. It proved that large amounts of THC and all other cannabis concentrates have been unable to produce death or organ pathology in large mammals.
A person weighing 70 kilos would have to eat approximately 21 kilograms of cannabis, more than 250,000 times the usual dose toThe Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding:Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972
potentiallyproduce a fatality.
“Drugs policy has been failing for decades. We need fresh thinking and a new approach.”PM David Cameron, 2005, during his run for Conservative Party leader
While campaigning, Cameron also said it would be “disappointing” if “radical options” on the law on cannabis were not reviewed. Since he was first elected, the Prime Minister has reversed his position entirely, ignoring all anecdotal and scientific evidence on medicinal cannabis.
The criminalisation of recreational cannabis has resulted in the criminalisation of the sick, disabled and chronically ill who rely on cannabis as medicine.
In 1998, a scientific review supporting the medicinal use of cannabis by the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee concluded: “The government should allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical use. Cannabis can be effective in some patients to relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and against certain forms of pain. This evidence is enough to justify a change in the law.”
Later that year, the Home Office granted a special licence to GW Pharmaceuticals which permitted the company the ability to grow, manufacture and research cannabis for medicinal use. This license, the only one of its kind, allows GW Pharmaceuticals to provide the raw product for the first cannabis medicine prescribed in the UK: Sativex. The drug, a cannabinoid extract medicine ingested as an oral spray, is prescribed for the relief of spasm symptoms found in some forms of multiple sclerosis.
Today GW Pharmaceuticals remain the only company in the UK with the ability to legally grow and research the therapeutic uses of cannabis. Their team are currently conducting trials for the potential uses of the drug for cancer-related pain and neuropathic pain.
Although beneficial for some, Sativex is extremely costly (up to £560 a month) and its prescription often dependent on the political persuasion of the doctor. Widely unavailable to those who need it and too expensive for the NHS, patients who might benefit from Sativex are often unable to try it. Those without access to Sativex or for whom Sativex is not effective continue to face unsympathetic law enforcement for using medicinal cannabis. Cannabis in its raw form is the primary, active ingredient in the legal drug, Sativex.
This discrepancy can be confusing to patients and their prescribing doctors as cannabis medicine Sativex has been licensed by the Government itself. David Nutt, former Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and author of ‘Drugs: Without the Hot Air,” says that many government officials create harmful “false distinctions” between cannabis medicine and cannabis-based medicines they have licensed. For example, former Minister for Crime Prevention James Pembroke said in Parliament that cannabis in its “raw form” is a harmful drug devoid of medicinal purposes. In the same sentence, he then confirmed the therapeutic uses of cannabis-drug Sativex. This common inconsistency is often seen in conversations surrounding the licensing and scheduling of cannabis drugs in the UK.
In the past year, the UK has seen more changes in attitude about cannabis than in the last few decades. In July 2015, Ron Hogg, Durham’s elected police and crime commissioner, publicly announced that his force would not actively prosecute small-time growers or citizens using cannabis for personal consumption. It is possible that Durham’s chief of police was publicising an otherwise quiet trend, demonstrated in the figures released to the Guardian under a Freedom of Information Act request. The report showed that penalties, cautions, charges and summons fell by almost a third from 145,4000 in 2011-2012 to 101,95 in 2014-2015.
The People and Parliament
Following a petition that drew over 220,000 signatures, a debate in the House of Commons to discuss the legalisation of cannabis was held on October 12, 2015. The debate itself was poorly attended – only 21 of a possible 650 MPs showed up. The Government's response to the debate was that no changes would be made in the law as "cannabis remains 'a significant public health issue".
The evidence cited in the Government's retort comes from a clear misinterpretation of a report by the 2008 Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which stated that cannabis should be declassified to a Class C drug and that criminal justice measures do not work.
Although the Government’s official response to the debate came from misconstrued findings from their own Advisory Council, medicinal cannabis activists still believe that the debate itself demonstrated a positive shift in overall public sentiment.
The petition was the second largest petition in UK’s history; the debate on cannabis was the first of its kind in nearly 50 years.
Under UK law, cannabis is not recognised as having any therapeutic value.
13 countries and 24 states in the USA have legalised medicinal cannabis.
Click on the green dots to learn more about each country's medicinal cannabis program.