The Context of Cannabis Prohibition: 

Stigmatisation & Racism in the UK


In November 2016, a report by the drug policy organisation 'release,' backed by a cross-party panel of MPs, called for the legalisation of cannabis. Support for the once uncontroversial policy of prohibition is fading and the arguments for it are being shown for what they are: poor policy.


The history of the argument is largely unknown. Why did cannabis prohibition come about in the first place? Cannabis and the culture associated with it has been stigmatised for over a century and so it isn't hard to imagine why so little is known by the majority of people about how cannabis became illegal. But behind the curtain lies a disturbing picture: one where greed and hatred came first, and smart policy last.

From the 1920s onwards, in the UK as well as the USA, propaganda began to connect cannabis and other drugs with undesirable social classes and 'foreigners.' The suppression of the drug came hand in hand with the suppression of these groups and the discord they supposedly sought to sow in through polite society. In America, these groups were African Americans and Mexicans. In the UK, associating drugs with foreigners was particularly driven by the popularity of cannabis in India and the wider consumption of Indian hemp in Bengal. In both countries, cannabis was associated with the poor in order to criminalize the lifestyles of lower social classes. This trend was also present with other drugs: for a period in the 19th Century gin was illegal in the UK, while whisky remained legal - gin was what the poor drank.

Drug Policies & Racism

Since the mid-20th century prosecutions for cannabis possession has expanded: in 1945 there were 4 prosecutions for cannabis off senses; by 1950, these numbers reached 80. Today, Police stop and search a UK citizen for drug possession once every 58 seconds. Almost 2 Million people in the UK have criminal records for cannabis posession. Police raids often focused on jazz clubs, associated with black men, and consumption was tied to indecent behaviour (particularly towards white women).

Today the oppressive legacy of the early war on drugs lives on, in which black Britons are six times more likely to be searched for drugs than their white counterparts and are twice as likely to be criminally charged for possession, despite being less likely to use illegal drugs. In the case of cocaine possession, a british citizen has a 78% chance of being charged if he or she is black, compared to a 44% chance if white. Current policy also adversely affects those in lower income brackets, who have been the major victims of the war on drugs in the UK.