The United States gets a lot of coverage in relation to the cannabis culture that exists there; legalisation in states such as in Washington or new York, health studies conducted by the world’s biggest universities and notable figures admitting their usage of it in their lives (we're looking at you, Obama) goes towards a more general secularisation of the herb in American culture. Rappers like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa make it a normal part of culture for many, and not necessarily in the negative way some media presents it to be. It’s deemed as a creative drug, a product of the planet, and as a wonderful material in the right situation. Movies adore it, as used frequently in Seth Rogen productions and comedy sketches on day-time TV.
But what about in England?
There are a few factors that shape the British cannabis culture across the pond from the States, from the criminalisation of it, the 'hushed attitude' of it in Parliament (our equivalent of Congress) and a moral disregard of it due to popular daytime television shows. In short, if you smoke weed in England, you're vilified, humiliated or accepted, depending on the area you live in. The police hate it, our politicians ignore it, and our health service rejects it. Despite this, a growing number of teenagers are trying it for the first time, and a larger number of adults are admitting they’ve smoked it at least once in their lives. It’s normalised and frowned upon in a weird paradox of moral emotion. So let's break it down:
According to the Home Office, the British equivalent of America’s White House Press statement, “it remains illegal for UK residents to possess cannabis in any form”. Despite the strong and blunt stance against the drug, the British Medical Association (the leading medical research association in the United Kingdom) openly stated that users of cannabis should be made aware of its risks, be given alternatives, be invited to medical trials and discuss routes with their doctors. But, there is a silver lining – in their 1997-98 parliamentary select committee hearings, they did not once advise users to stop smoking weed.
In the United Kingdom, it is illegal to: possess, grow, distribute or sell cannabis in the country without “an appropriate licence”. As such, it is labelled as a Class B drug (on the same level as codeine and methadone) and on the equivalent of a Schedule iii and iv drug in the USA.
In terms of punishments, for dealing, you could expect up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or a stupid combination of both. For simple possession, you could face a maximum of 5 years in prison. On a silver lining, there is “cannabis warnings” that can be given for small amounts found (usually 1 ounce or less) strictly for personal use. This does, however, stay on a police record; albeit does not appear on a DBS check when applying for work, nor does it carry any fines. Interestingly, from 2004 until 2009, it was banded lower as a Class C drug, being moved up in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government elected in 2010.
The British media is, at best, slightly sceptical of the “horrendous damaging” effects of weed on the user that some certain American broadcasters preach. At the very best, some independent papers call for NHS studies into the drug's true effects (the NHS being the main medical body of the UK, free of charge). At worst, it is the “scummiest, dirtiest and laziest drug” in existence. Entire talk-shows often revolve around grilling members of public on their blunt-smoking, and a large social media following backs up these sentiments. At worst, newspapers brandish it the worst gateway drug available to young people, and argue that funding trials on the NHS is unfair on the tax payer who would “be funding drug habits”.
On average, in Britain, the media is dismissive of cannabis. Whilst it largely avoids adjectives like “dangerous” and “fatal” that some extremists favour, it certainly doesn’t avoid criticism, with “lazy” and “gross” being the most common descriptions for anyone using it, regardless of their reasoning. If it’s not calling it disgusting and immoral, it’s dismissing it as a waste of money and a waste of time. The BBC is generally centrist on the issue, Sky News is conservative and the one newspaper that fear-mongers the most about it is The Daily Mail - argued to be Britain's most controversial and lie-filled paper to date.
No analysis of British weed culture could be complete without mention of the hefty protests us Brits stage in the continued push for legalization. As with Americans and Canadians, we too celebrate 4/20 on the 20th April. Every year, as the calendar ticks over to everyone’s favourite date, thousands descend on London’s Hyde Park in ‘Speakers Corner’ to light up in a mass public protest. Normally, you wouldn’t think this is a big deal, but outlined above the criminalization of weed in the UK is pretty strict – so such a public display is rare and entertaining! Last year alone, there were 5000 attendees, 53 arrests, 21 on bail and an estimated £50,000 being spent on cannabis for 4:20pm alone. The general attitude was one of unity, defiance and absolute community, but some in attendance couldn’t help but feel saddened at the UK’s progress in the past 4 decades. In speaking to The Guardian, one man said he was there in protest in 1978 and that not one thing has changed since then, also adding that he was “nearly arrested then” and laughed if asked if things would ever change.
That man generally sums up the attitude across Britain. Whilst the following of weed smokers is immense and accounts for the vast majority of drug users in the country, not much is really changing. The push of ‘third party candidates’ like the Green Party does offer to challenge the conservative notions present, but many do not see them as a viable government option as evident with low popular vote figures. For the meanwhile, it seems, were stuck with prohibition of the herb, although some local police forces have suggested they’re pulling all resources in the pursuit of cannabis users – a promising drop in the stormy ocean.