Cannabis Prohibition in the UK – Harm Reduction or Moral Panic?

3rd February 2022

Cannabis is the most used recreational drug in the world, despite still being prohibited in most countries. The use of the drug dates back thousands of years, with evidence of medicinal and recreational consumption being found in many ancient societies, including Egypt, India, and China. This use continued, largely unhindered, into the 19th century when lawmakers began passing legislation to limit – and eventually, prohibit – its use. 

In fact, many drugs that are illegal or only circumstantially legal today once enjoyed widespread use and even medical acclaim all around the world. Up until the 1900s, drugs such as opium, cocaine, and cannabis were commonly prescribed as medical products as well as being used for recreational purposes. However, in the last century, these drugs underwent a drastic reputation change.

Some historians believe that these changes in public opinion were the result of moral panics, constructed by the ruling elite as a way to control certain groups of the population. In the case of cannabis, these groups were distinguished by ‘race’ or their potential disruption to traditional Western values. One Royal Commission reflected the view that the majority of drug policy, and the ‘war on drugs’ was based on “moral panic” as opposed to evidence-based harm reduction.

We’re taking a look at the timeline that led to the prohibition of cannabis in the UK, and how this helped to form stereotypes that many still hold today.

What is a Moral Panic?

A moral panic is a social phenomenon characterised by a period of public anxiety and fuelled by several sources, to a perceived moral issue in society. In short, a moral panic is usually based on a ‘disproportionate’ reaction to an interpreted evil. According to Professor Stanley Cohen, who coined the term in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, there are usually five necessary stages to a moral panic:

“[1] A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”: (In this case, cannabis and cannabis users); [2] its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; [3] the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; [4] socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; [5] ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.”

The UK’s Cannabis Moral Panic

In modern society, recreational drug users have been repeatedly made the victims of moral panics – either directly or indirectly. This led Cohen to write extensively on ‘drug problems’ and how drug users or ‘drug fiends’ have been made into folk devils or scapegoats for wider societal concerns.

A History of Cannabis in the UK

The UK’s experience of cannabis began with the introduction of hemp as early as 800-1000 AD. Like in many areas around the world, these first plants are thought to have been cultivated for practical uses such as for clothing, paper, weapons, rope, and ship sails. However, the crop soon fell out of favour with farmers, probably due to the rising popularity of other crops.

The 16th century, however, saw the re-introduction of hemp and the crop surged in popularity once again. Famously, Henry VIII even instructed all farmers to dedicate a quarter of an acre of their land to the plant. Hemp crops have remained in the British Isles to this day, albeit with increasingly restrictive conditions applied to cultivation.

cannabis moral panic
Hemp Crops

Recreational strains of the cannabis plant – characterised by higher concentrations of the psychoactive compound THC – were brought to the UK at a much later date. These strains were likely bred intentionally by farmers from elsewhere in the world specifically for their mind-altering potential. However, there is also evidence that cannabis plants that grow at high altitudes naturally develop higher levels of THC.

Evidence collected from across Asia and the Middle East suggests that these strains were used in religious ceremonies as well as for medicinal and recreational purposes.

When did High-THC Strains Become More Common in the UK?

It is assumed that high-THC ‘recreational’ cannabis was not seen to a significant degree by Britons until the colonisation of Eastern countries like India. British soldiers in colonial India witnessed the recreational use of ‘hemp drugs’ among the native populations in the 1800s. Many speculated that the use of the drug led to insanity and immorality among its users, with some reporting that “the lunatic asylums of India are filled with Ganja smokers.”

However, the extensive Hemp Drugs Commission Report, found that these claims were unsubstantiated by evidence. The report was based on an extensive survey of the observations of over 1,000 British and Indian sources across the country. It concluded that “these drugs do not tend to crime and violence”. As a result, no action was taken at the time to prohibit the use of cannabis in India. By the time this report was published, British doctors and researchers had already ‘discovered’ the medicinal potential of cannabis, leading to an increasing prevalence of the plant in Britain.

Cannabis was prescribed for a variety of ailments in Britain in the ensuing years and was even prescribed to Queen Victoria to treat menstrual pains. Doctors in the UK were able to prescribe cannabis until 1971 when the Misuse of Drugs Act.

So, When was Cannabis made Illegal in the UK?

Cannabis use wasn’t prohibited in the UK until 1928, following the International Drug Conference in Geneva. This law change meant that cannabis was to be considered as harmful to individuals and society as cocaine and opium. However, the law did little to curb the recreational use of cannabis as little resources were given to this purpose until the 1950s/60s.

It is now widely accepted that the USA’s War on Drugs was a thinly-veiled attempt to target and control minority populations – namely Mexicans and Black Americans. Many historians and policy experts believe that the hardening of UK drug policy in the 1950s/60s was designed to meet similar ends.

The Timeline of the UK’s Cannabis Moral Panic

In the 1950s, the UK ‘welcomed’ large populations of immigrants from a number of previous British colonies. A large proportion of these immigrants moved to the UK from the Caribbean, and many brought their use of recreational cannabis with them. Anti-establishment groups of the 1960s were also grouped together to create the ‘flower power, hippy pot-smoker’ stereotype.

The ruling elite has consistently framed the cannabis use of these groups as an issue of immorality. In response to the perceived threat to the accepted order represented by these groups, harsher policies and punishments for cannabis use were brought in. This culminated in the ‘real’ launch of the UK’s War on Drugs, with extensive legislation, including the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, targeting cannabis users.

Related Stories