The Hemp Community Podcast

A brief history of Cannabis legislation

October 20, 2021 Season 1 Episode 4
The Hemp Community Podcast
A brief history of Cannabis legislation
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of The Hemp Community Podcast, we take a look at the history of cannabis prohibition. When did it start? How did it progress? And where are we now?

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  Episode 4: A history of cannabis legislation


Hi there, thanks for tuning in to the hemp community podcast, my name is dan and on today’s episode I’m going to be talking about the history of cannabis legislation and looking at different examples of cannabis policy from around the world. By the end of this podcast, I hope that you’ll have an understanding of the complex legal frameworks that effect cannabis users, including medical cannabis patients.

Before we get started, I’d like to introduce the idea that there are thousands of varieties or “strains” of cannabis. Like all species of flora, cannabis can be bred to emphasise target characteristics. As such, many types of cannabis are grown for the manufacture of things like of rope, paper and building materials; we generally refer to these plants as “industrial hemp” and while they are still part of the cannabis species they do not produce large quantities of THC although some strains industrial hemp can be used for CBD extraction. The most famous types of cannabis are the psychoactive plants that do have high levels of THC and are also able to express complex bouquets of aromatic compounds called “terpenes”; these types of cannabis are often referred to by the moniker of “weed” but as you will probably be aware, there is an enormous list of nicknames for these plants. There are different laws that govern both industrial hemp and THC-bearing cannabis and in this podcast I’ll try and introduce you to the sticky mess of laws that effect all cannabis, drawing distinctions between industrial and exotic cannabis where necessary.

The Cannabis plant is estimated to be in the region of 25 million years old; it predates human civilisation and even the human species by eons. The kind herb is found on every continent where homo sapiens are settled, and I suspect there may even be some weed under the Antarctic ice awaiting discovery. Our ancestors farmed cannabis and took seeds with them as they wandered the globe; the plants adapted to different climates and conditions, leading to the terrific variety of cannabis genetics available today. There’s no way these early humans could have understood the chemical complexity of their crops, but they knew that they were useful for food, fuel, clothing and medicine. The earliest written record of cannabis being used to treat disease is credited to Chinese doctors, approximately 7000 years ago. Plants with high THC would typically be found in mountainous regions of Asia. In Europe, cannabis strains akin to industrial hemp were grown on farms across the continent; low in THC, but great for industry. Some of the earliest examples of British cannabis law actually required farmers to grow a minimum quantity of the plant because it was so important for the economy. The Scottish writer Adam Smith references the hemp trade in his work, and famously the ships of the British empire were rigged with sails and rope made from hemp plants. Newspapers were printed on cheap paper made from recycled hemp fabric; to this day newspapers are still called “rags” because of this technique. At the turn of the 20th century, hemp was even used to make dynamite. (don’t try this at home). 

The reason for all these examples of practical applications of hemp agriculture is to show how widespread the cultivation of cannabis was. In times gone by it would have been unfathomable for anyone to attempt to reduce the availability of cannabis; even THC was available over the counter in many of Victorian Britain’s pharmacies having been introduced from India in the 1830’s. Attempts to regulate drug production and commerce first emerged in the early 20th century; the first drug control treaty was signed in 1912 by The League of Nations which we can understand as the pre-cursor to the UN that we know today. The international Opium Convention was an agreement between 13 nation states to control and regulate the production, transport and sale of narcotic drugs, in particular Opium. The US attempted to have Cannabis included in this treaty, but was initially unsuccessful. Later iterations of the convention did feature controls on cannabis, in particular hashish production which was mostly associated with recreational use. In a bizarre twist, it was Egyptian politicians who managed to get cannabis lumped in with more dangerous narcotics like opium and cocaine, although their reasons were less to do with protecting public health, and more to do with protecting Egyptian cotton farmers who were struggling to compete with hemp.

Around the same time, America conducted its disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition which handed control of the drug and its production to criminal gangs. The roaring twenties saw the government engage in a game of cat and mouse with bootleggers that eventually resulted in the repeal of 13th amendment and re-legalisation of alcohol. In the wake of prohibition’s failure, an agent of the US government by the name of Harry J Anslinger began a campaign to clamp down on the domestic production and consumption of cannabis. If you would like more detail about Anslinger, there is a terrific book called “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari, but for now I’ll summarise that Anslinger was a hardliner; his zero-tolerance stance on drug use went on to inform future generations of drug legislation and his influence is still visible today. The most conspicuous example of Anslinger’s legacy is in the domain of linguistics; when he was campaigning for the prohibition of cannabis, he hit a stumbling block in the form of the American Medical Association, which listed cannabis oil as a primary treatment for over 100 indications. Without the support of America’s physicians, Anslinger would never have succeeded in his quest for cannabis prohibition so in order to get the doctors on side he introduced a new word for cannabis that made it sound like something new and foreign; he adopted the word “marihuana” (with an H) and his contemporaries took the bait. The Marihuana tax act was passed in 1937 effectively banning all cannabis production, with support from the doctors who prescribed it. The nationwide ban on cannabis was temporarily suspended during WW2 when the US army had need of hemp products for the war effort; if you’re interested there is an old black and white film on youtube called “hemp for victory” which was made by the US government, encouraging farmers to grow a plant that had just been outlawed.

You may have noticed that so far, this episode has focused mostly on America’s influence on Cannabis policy, and I think it is important for context to understand that cannabis prohibition is a relatively modern phenomenon influenced by international socio-political conditions of the early 20th century. Prohibitionist beliefs borrow from a mindset shared by many in the wake of industrial revolution; simply that nature could be exploited, but also manipulated, changed and improved upon. For example, when the light bulb was first invented, Thomas Edison professed that artificial light would reduce our species’ need for sleep, he promised factory owners that the installation of electric light fittings would increase production by practically eliminating workers’ need for rest; an 18 hour work day without fatigue. A similar paradigm shift is observed in medicine, as practitioners moved away from natural remedies and towards synthetic drugs.

By 1961, cannabis had been included in the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, although hardline prohibition policies wouldn’t start to emerge for another decade. In the early 70’s, Richard Nixon’s administration coined the phrase “war on drugs” and nominated drug abuse as “public enemy number one”. Even Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman has since admitted that the war on drugs was orchestrated to target anti-government protestors in the counter culture and civil rights movements. To quote “by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did”.

On this side of Atlantic, the UK government introduced the misuse of substances act, which remained the backbone of drug policy here for decades. The 1971 legislation made it illegal to possess, supply, prescribe or even research cannabis. In other countries, the scientific endeavour to understand cannabis had reached a new and exciting phase after the discovery of THC and CBD, but in the UK researchers, and even doctors faced new, draconian restrictions. Many patients who had been in receipt of cannabis oil from their physician suddenly found their medicine replaced with pharmaceutical drugs. During the 1970s, the advisory council on the misuse of drugs recommended on multiple occasions that the government reconsider the blanket ban on cannabis, and to at least allow research into the plant and its potential medical value. In response the government doubled down, and tightened restrictions. 

During the 1980’s, drug enforcement became more strict while public health messaging became little more than reductive PR campaigns like “just say no” ignoring that there may be good reasons for people to consider certain drugs. Cannabis in the UK at this time was mostly in the form of hash, smuggled from places like Afghanistan, Lebanon and Morocco. In the 90’s domestic production became common place and the market changed from brown to green; exotic varieties of cannabis could now be grown in the UK under high pressure sodium bulbs and the criminal gangs flourished. Around the world scientists made breakthroughs in the understanding of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system and yet the UK home office remained intransigent. California legalised cannabis for medical use in 1996, Canada in 2002 but the UK wouldn’t change tact until 2018. governments led by both Labour and the Conservatives have attempted to save face by using tough rhetoric to threaten drug users and dealers, but successive administrations have ignored recommendations from their own advisers that drug policy needs to change to reflect a growing body of evidence. 
 Speaking of which; in order to research cannabis, a license is required from the home office and for many years licenses were only given to projects that examined harm from cannabis, and not benefit. If all your questions relate to harm, don’t be surprised when all your answers indicate harm. The home office also has the responsibility of regulating industrial hemp licenses for farmers; these licenses are cheaper but cover a far smaller range of plants limited by THC content not exceeding 0.2% and that’s only one of the strict conditions. Hemp crops must be situated away from public view and UK hemp farmers are only allowed to harvest the seeds and stalks, but the flowers of the plant and even its leaves are required by law to be burnt. All CBD products in the UK start off life on a European or American farm, while UK cultivators literally set fire to their most valuable product.


The most up to date legislation on drugs in the UK is the psychoactive substances act (2016) which was formulated in response to the tidal wave of novel drugs (formerly known as legal highs). In the early-mid noughties, chemists started producing synthetic cannabinoids; these Frankenstein compounds were designed to evade drug laws whilst simulating the effects of weed, although there were many so-called “legal highs” which were designed to mimic drugs like cocaine and ecstacy. The introduction of these types of drugs are associated with an exponential rise in drug hospitalisations, particularly with regards to synthetic cannabinoids which are cheap, addictive, dangerous and almost exclusively marketed to vulnerable groups like the homeless and prison populations. Curiously, the statistics on cannabis hospitalisation used by UK policy makers does not differentiate between synthetic and natural cannabinoids, which in my opinion is a deliberate choice to conflate the two.

In 2018 the campaign for medical cannabis in the UK finally seemed to have made progress with the home secretary adjusting legislation to allow cannabis on prescription. Famously, a 10 year old boy called Billy Caldwell had his medical cannabis confiscated by customs officers and within 24 hours he was hospitalised and on deaths door. For better or worse the cameras were rolling and the immense   PR pressure forced the hand of the home office to allow his prescription through. There was a sense of positivity within the broader cannabis community at this time, with the expectation that within months NHS clinicians would start prescribing cannabis. Unfortunately this has not been case, and with hindsight the change in law seems only to have benefitted private clinics and those able to afford their own prescription; there are now more private clinics for medical cannabis than there are NHS patients with a script. Limited progress has been made since the 2018 legislation, and I fear that in part it is because successive generations of doctors and decision makers within the health service have not been taught about the endocannabinoid system , but instead have been conditioned to distrust or even fear cannabis. So much evidence of harm, and scant evidence of benefit, all by design.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors the UK government has worked closely with a number of private organisations to help develop the domestic production of cannabis, and in fact even by the time medical cannabis became legal in 2018, the UK was already the world’s largest exporter of medical cannabis products, courtesy of British Sugar PLC who grow the plants, and GW pharma who turn the flowers into medicine that gets sent to hospitals all over the world, just not at home. One thing that these companies have in common is that they have close links to the conservative government who have facilitated the meteoric rise of the British medical cannabis industry. Of particular relevance is the former Drugs Policy Minister Victoria Atkins whose husband is the MD of British Sugar plc, the company were handed the first and for many years ONLY license to grow cannabis for medical use, even before medical cannabis existed in law; imagine getting a license for something that doesn’t exist? This marital conspiracy made MP Victoria Atkins recuse herself from commenting on cannabis policy because her spouse was growing 45 acres of the stuff in Norfolk. Imagine that; a drugs policy minister not allowed to comment on the most commonly used drug in the UK because her husband grows weed professionally.

Another layer of irony is the fact that even before the 2018 legislation, there were many people who were using medical cannabis legally in the UK, as long as they could afford the private license and afford to take the boat to the Netherlands to collect their prescription in person. Historically, medical cannabis has always been available for those who can afford it, but chronic health conditions are more common in people who can’t afford private health care.

The UK is unusually restrictive in its approach to cannabis in general, and it seems that there have been deliberate efforts to delay the legalisation of cannabis more broadly in order to allow the private sector to get their investments in place. A multi-billion pound industry has sprung up right under our nose, and yet we are told there isn’t enough evidence to loosen restrictions for individuals or NHS clinicians.

There are many examples of the different approaches to cannabis policy. In the Netherlands cannabis can be prescribed as medicine, but is also available for purchase in coffeeshops. Weed isn’t legal, but “tolerated” by the law, creating a huge grey area where criminal gangs are able to exploit loopholes. In spain, cannabis social clubs are common; club members are allowed to buy and sell cannabis among one another with the intended goal of reducing the influence of the black market, although many clubs have reported being targeted by criminals and without and legal recourse. Many Spanish cannabis users grow their own plants at home, and it is common to see a plant or two out on the balcony enjoying the Mediterranean sun. Switzerland took the bold step of legalising all cannabis under 1% THC, allowing a huge industry to grow and flourish within a couple of years. CBD flowers are available from supermarkets and pre-rolled joints can be bought at vending machines. The initiative has been so successful that the Swiss government are trialling legal weed in several regions, with no reports of harm so far. Little Luxembourg intends to be the first country in Europe to legalise cannabis for adult use, and there are rumours that Germany’s new government intend to legalise weed soon too.

The most liberal cannabis markets in the world are in the US and canada. Dozens of American states have legalised cannabis for medical use, and almost as many have gone 1 step further and legalised all adult-use cannabis. Famously, states like California and Colorado have experienced an economic miracle with new jobs, new tax revenues and new opportunities available for people who want to use cannabis for their health. Products are available in all shapes and sizes, and in some states, legal cannabis dispensaries outnumber starbucks and mcdonalds. Although cannabis is still illegal at a federal level, there is legislation moving through congress that offers to decriminalise or even fully legalise the plant. I suspect that as soon as America changes its position, the rest of the world will follow suit.

Cannabis policy is a fascinating mess, and it is clear that no jurisdiction has got it right yet. Even in the US states where weed is legal, businesses face strange and seemingly capricious limitations on how they grow and sell their cannabis. In my opinion, the more restrictions introduced, the greater the incentive for the black market to circumvent the law; complex regulations at best create loopholes but more often end up generating profit for criminal gangs. 

In my personal opinion, the reason cannabis prohibition has failed is because it is a fundamentally bad idea, rooted in prejudice and ignorance. I think it is telling that almost all cannabis legislation has been written by people who neither need nor love cannabis. Perhaps if patients were better represented in policy discussions, there would be more concessions made on their behalf. At the hemp community we believe that the benefits of cannabis far outweigh the risks, and I am convinced that as tide turns on cannabis prohibition we will see a net gain in our society.

There are many topics to discuss on cannabis legislation, and today we’ve only really glanced at the unusual world of weed law. In the meantime I will summarise as succinctly as I can; The cannabis plant was here before us, and it will continue to thrive long after human activity on the earth has ceased. The Prohibition of cannabis increases harm associated with the illicit drug trade, and actively prevents individuals and communities from benefitting from the prodigious herb. The future of cannabis policy is uncertain and although I do believe that it will be legalised for personal use within a decade, it is clear that corporate interests will play an important role in shaping policy going forward. While we wait for politicians to get off the fence, the so-called sharks are circling, ready to profit from any change in legislation, and in fact many lobbyists have already started courting policy makers across Europe. It is my hope that cannabis activists and patients will be invited to the table so that policy going forward is written with an understanding of the nature of the plant but more importantly that our cannabis laws should be written with respect and compassion for the people who need and use it.  


Thanks for listening to the hemp community podcast, on next week’s episode we’ll be discussing some of the differences between THC and CBD