From Royal medicine to Satanic herbs, the Cannabis plant has been a strong part of life and development in the UK for thousands of years: whether through fibre, food or pharmacy. However the growing stigma around it is a modern perspective led by The War On Drugs.
Animals and plants have had an inherently symbiotic relationship since the thawing of the Ice Age. Beyond industry, health and sustenance, this also includes religious purposes and play. The history of cannabis in the UK is lengthy and complex, spanning from the Bronze Age to Queen Victoria’s menstrual medication and beyond.
Bronze Age Fibres Igniting Medieval Minds
Cannabis is believed to have been farmed in the UK as early as the Bronze Age (850 BC). In the 1990s, archeologists stumbled across evidence of hemp fibres amongst a hoard of Bronze Age weaponry and other items at a site in St Andrews, Scotland.
Due to its strength and versatility, Hemp has long been a popular material in industry. The Edict of Diocletian published in 301 AD, as a record of goods and services produced and traded in Roman Britain, cites hemp fibre for use in rope, sail-cloth and other important materials. And cannabis fibres and seeds have been found at numerous Roman-era sites across the UK, particularly York and Hull.
In 400AD The Anglo-Saxons invaded the British Isles and, similar to the Romans, farmed hemp for fibre to create cords, sails, fishing nets, and clothing. They also likely pressed the seeds for oil. Between 476 to 1450 AD evidence suggests that hemp farming for fibre production expanded throughout medieval England.
The traditional hemp industry was centred near Hampshire (named after hemp / hempshire), and areas across the UK with ‘Hemp’ or ‘Hamp’ in their titles signified hubs of hemp production. Records from this period indicate that cannabis also became an important medical and therapeutic tool, being used as an anaesthetic to treat conditions such as gout, weight gain, urinary infections and birthing issues (amongst others). Areas in Scotland, particularly monastic communities, grew cannabis for similar purposes.
Hildegard of Bingen, also known as Saint Hildegard, was a German Benedictine abbess and polymath active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, and as a medical writer and practitioner during the High Middle Ages. She wrote extensively about the positive (and negative) physical and mental effects of cannabis in Physica. While she was German and not based in the UK, her influence on a range of topics – from art and philosophy, to medicine – heavily influenced the monasteries of Scotland.
In 1484, the use of cannabis as a medicine was demonised by the Papal Bull of Innocent VIII which equated herbalists – many of whom were women practising in the British Isles – to witches and declared hemp-based therapies “an unholy sacrament of satanic rituals.”
Elizabethan England: Monastic Maladies
In the Elizabethan era, cannabis cultivation in the UK had reached its peak. As the importance of England’s supreme seafaring military grew in 1533, so too did the demand for hemp fibre ropes, sails, uniforms, and numerous other materials important to sustaining the Crown. King Henry VIII ordered farmers to dedicate a percentage of their land to growing hemp, or they would face fines.
Queen Elizabeth I extended King Henry VIII’s decree and increased the penance to £5 for not complying. At this point however, farmers were reportedly sick of growing the plant, as the processing of hemp for fibre (also known as ‘retting’) left ‘foul odours’, and farmers could reportedly earn more money by growing a greater variety of other crops. In spite of the threats and fines, hemp farming in the UK began to decline.
John Gerard was an English herbalist with a large garden in Holborn, now part of London. His illustrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597, became a popular gardening and herbal book in England in the 17th century. Despite being condemned as demonic herbalism, cannabis’ medicinal advantages were still featured in the publication.
In the early 1600s, British colonies in Canada and Virginia also began to grow hemp. And by 1653, Cannabis’ many medicinal uses including as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic, were included in a version of the London College of Physicians’ Pharmacopoeia thanks to contributions from botanist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper.
Victorian Virtues: Medicine and Monarchy
In the 1830s, Scotsman William Brooke O’Shaunghnessy discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis while studying in India. O’Shaunghnessy was influential in bringing ‘Indian hemp’ (believed to be mostly cannabis indica) to the UK as a treatment for a range of ailments.
As the popularity of indica as a medicine increased, it became a regular staple of physicians and practitioners. For the first time, cannabis was available in refined tinctures, pills and extracts. By 1890, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, Sir Russell Reynolds, was a firm believer in cannabis medicine and routinely prescribed it to alleviate her menstrual cramps.
In 1894, after extensive observation of cannabis use in India, the India Hemp Drugs Commission concluded that cannabis should be taxed and regulated rather than prohibited, citing ‘how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs’. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report stated that Cannabis had a number of medical, emotional and social benefits when used moderately.
The report was at least 3,281 pages long, with testimony from around 1,200 “doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy.” In its chapter on the effects of cannabis, its final statement read:
‘The Commission have now examined all the evidence before them regarding the effects attributed to hemp drugs. It will be well to summarize briefly the conclusions to which they come. It has been clearly established that the occasional use of hemp in moderate doses may be beneficial; but this use may be regarded as medicinal in character. It is rather to the popular and common use of the drugs that the Commission will now confine their attention. It is convenient to consider the effects separately as affecting the physical, mental, or moral nature… Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable.’
By the late 1800s, despite more recognition from the medical community around the benefits of cannabis, it was still not widely used throughout the 19th century. Around the same time, stigma against it began to increase. This is often linked to colonial prejudices and general racism against native populations, and the ways in which they were perceived to consume or use cannabis.
British pharmacologist Walter Ernest Dixon published a paper on the pharmacology of cannabis indica, where he not only describes cannabis as a ‘food accessory’, but also pointed out how smoking cannabis elicits more immediate effects than alternative consumption methods.
Problematic Prohibition: Drug Demonisation
In 1923 the League of Nations called for tighter controls over cannabis use. Britain, however, asked for more evidence before any controls were imposed, mainly due to the positive findings of the India Hemp Drugs Commission.
Even so, by 1928 The Dangerous Drugs Act became law, making recreational cannabis use illegal in Great Britain. Despite cannabis still being medically legal, doctors reportedly lost interest in prescribing cannabis, as it became increasingly perceived as a dangerous ‘drug’ rather than a beneficial ‘plant medicine’.
In the swinging 60s, this was notoriously met with mass resistance through an expressive age of ‘peace and love’ and ‘turning on, tuning in, and dropping out’. To make an example of it, high profile figures such as Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones were arrested and sentenced to prison for marijuana possession in 1967. The same year, more than 3,000 people joined a mass ‘Smoke-In’ at London’s Hyde Park.
A subsequent committee set up by the Home Office concluded that cannabis is no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco, and recommended that restrictions on use should be lifted. They were not. Instead, the 1969 Misuse of Drugs Act in England instated a maximum of five years imprisonment for cannabis possession.
In the 70s, the popularity of Bob Marley and other Rastafarian artists in the UK sought to remind people of the wider spiritual and religious uses of the cannabis plant. And in 1971, an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD] was created to guide schizophrenic government policy. In 1979, the Council suggested lowering the classification of cannabis to class C under the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, the government did not abide by the recommendation. Cannabis was as political as it had always been, and import and export links were further restricted to select parties.
In 1992, the Home Office lifted restrictions on hemp cultivation and Hemcore became the first British company to legally grow industrial hemp. Home Secretary Michael Howard increased maximum fines for possession from £500 to £2,500, emphasising the ‘criminal’ nature of cannabis. Four years later, The Independent on Sunday newspaper launched a ‘decriminalise cannabis’ campaign.
The movement quickly gained traction and in 1998, while visiting a daycare Prince Charles asked a woman suffering from MS whether she had tried cannabis to help ease pain caused by her condition. He reportedly said something along the lines of, “I understand that under strict medical supervision, it is one of the best things for it.”
Eventually Home Secretary David Blunkett moved cannabis from Class B to Class C in the early 2000s, making possession a non-arrestable offence. In 2004, this was formalised into law. But in 2009, it went back to being Class B under the reasoning that it was more harmful to the body than previously thought…
Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018 following two high profile media campaigns which centred around children with life-threatening epileptic seizures who had experienced significant improvements from cannabis. However it remained difficult to actually prescribe in practice, predominantly due to the lagging medical literature base and gaping data gaps from decades of back and forth prohibition.
Despite the now widespread anecdotal benefits and historical legacy, by 2022 a cohort of conservative police commissioners had called for cannabis to be reclassified as a Class A drug, calling it just as harmful as cocaine and citing the ‘gateway drug’ argument. According to a Home Office source, Home Secretary Suella Braverman was ‘receptive’ to the reclassification.
The complicated and twisted history of the cannabis plant is a prime example of the messy interplay between recommended interventions and inappropriate regulations that seek to define contextual complexities in absolute terms. As well as highlighting the impact that culture, class and language play in perspectives and logistics.