Will the UK follow Europe on cannabis use?
Those were the days. Weren’t they? The summer of love in ’67. Flower power, cheesecloth shirts, flared jeans, ancient hand-painted Volkswagen Beetles. The Stones in Hyde Park in ’69 and the Isle of Wight festival with Bob Dylan that same year. They reckon if you can remember those events, you couldn’t have been there. No need to smoke a joint to get stoned, you only had to breathe in. The use of cannabis in many ways symbolises the entire the hippie era, already drawing to its close by the time Jimi Hendrix headlined at the Isle of Wight the following year. The mood and the ethos were peace and love, “make love not war”.
Smoking cannabis was believed by many hippies to be not just pleasurable, but benign, kind and gentle too – like the times. Harder substances and potions were, of course, around, but cannabis was thought to be a drug that enhanced and heightened the moment, not one that took the user into an unknown, potentially darker and more dangerous place.
In the ensuing years cannabis has not gone away, it is still extremely popular around the world as a recreational drug. But these days the user is quite likely to be middle-aged or older, perhaps a survivor of the hippie era – still inhaling and breathing out slowly, still hoping for global peace and love. In 2017, 7.2% of 16 to 59-year-olds reported using cannabis in the last year, making it the most commonly used illegal drug in the UK.
The medical use of cannabis was legalised in the UK in November 2018, although the drug is still seldom used for medical purposes. It is sometimes prescribed for children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy, adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy and for people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis. Now, despite the serious and considered reservations of some, there are increasing calls for recreational use of cannabis to be legalised in the UK. In the USA, eighteen states have made using the drug lawful, while Canada legalised and regulated the use of the plant for pleasure in 2018. Closer to home, the Netherlands has long had its relaxed, cannabis-café culture, though Malta was the first country on the European continent to legalise recreational cannabis, in December 2021.
Other European nations are swiftly following. The new German coalition government has said it will be passing laws to facilitate the sale of cannabis to adults from licensed shops. France, too, formerly seen as a nation with some of the strongest anti-drugs laws in Europe, appears to be considering a similar course, as are Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands. So, is it time for a change in the law in the UK, too? Recent surveys suggest that the British public remains somewhat split on the question, with our own surveys suggesting about 60% support overall. The government has no plans for a change in current policy, and any shift in that stance appears unlikely.