With the recreational use of cannabis already being legal in countries such as Canada and Uruguay, as well as in several US states, Malta recently became the first country in the EU to legalise cannabis for personal use. On the back of such developments, debates on the status of cannabis in the UK are also becoming more prominent.
While medical cannabis prescriptions have been possible since November 2018, it currently remains illegal to possess, supply, or produce cannabis in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The latest research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies looks at what the British public thinks about this current situation and the potential legalisation of cannabis.
The Office for National Statistics states that cannabis has consistently been the most-used drug in England and Wales since 1995. In our latest poll, 7% of respondents admit to having consumed recreational cannabis in the past two years and 16% admit to having done so prior to the pandemic—though it is possible that other respondents who have also consumed the drug recreationally deny having done so.
The British public is split on whether the recreational use of cannabis should be legalised in the UK, however. While a narrow plurality of 38% opposes such a change, 35% conversely say they would support the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use.
The youngest and oldest demographic groups polled are the most critical of the legalisation of cannabis. Only 34% of 18-to-24-year-olds and 21% of those aged 65 and above would support making the recreational use of cannabis legal. By contrast, 45% of 25-to-34-year-olds and 41% of 35-to-44-year-olds express their support, for instance.
A divide in views along political lines is also evident. Whereas only 25% of 2019 Conservative voters would support and 51% would oppose the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, the figures are nearly inverse for 2019 Labour voters. Among this latter demographic, 48% would support and only 24% would oppose making the recreational use of cannabis legal.
At the same time, support for the current legal situation, whereby possessing cannabis can carry a prison term of up to four years and producing and supplying the drug can carry a prison term of up to 14 years, remains considerable. Overall, 41% of Britons polled support the supply and possession of cannabis being a criminal offence for which offenders can be imprisoned, compared to 30% who oppose.
In line with their more critical views on the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, the very youngest and very oldest segments of the public express the strongest support for the possession and supply of cannabis being a criminal offence: 46% of 18-to-24-year-olds and 51% of those aged 65 and above support this classification, compared to 32% of 25-to-34-year-olds, for instance.
At 51%, 2019 Conservative voters are again notably more likely than 2019 Labour voters (32%) to support the classification of the possession and supply of cannabis as a criminal offence that can carry a prison sentence.
While men (35%) and women (35%) are equally likely to say they support the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, men (45%) are noticeably more likely than women (37%) to support the possession and supply of cannabis being a criminal offence that can carry a prison sentence.
Evidently, there is no consensus among Britons on whether and how possessing and supplying cannabis should be punished. While 22% think the possession and supply of cannabis should not be an offence at all, 32% think it should be a criminal offence. A further 35% think it should be a minor offence—a classification that does not exist as such in UK laws but suggests that around a third of the British public, while opposed to the complete legalisation of cannabis, may nevertheless be in favour of milder penalties for individuals possessing or supplying cannabis.
For the time being, both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer have voiced their opposition to changing the law with regard to cannabis. But as local pilot schemes are implemented, such as one currently being developed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan that would effectively decriminalise minor cannabis offences among under-25s, the legal status of recreational cannabis use may yet become a topic of political contention between the UK’s two main parties.