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What is 420? A History of Cannabis in the UK

20 Apr 2020
What is 420? A History of Cannabis in the UK

The National Hemp Service has a big community of people new to the Cannabis and Hemp scene. One event that you should absolutely be aware of, is the legendary ‘4/20’ - a date and number that has become an internationally recognised symbol in cannabis culture. 

Every year on April 20th people all around the world celebrate cannabis culture, in a peaceful protest against it’s ongoing prohibition.

In London, the tradition is that over 15,000 people gather in Hyde Park and light up together at 4:20pm, in a peaceful act of rebellion that unites all varieties of cannabis users.

The Met police have begrudgingly accepted that they can’t write-up that many people at once, so there is a police presence at the park but it’s usually a peaceful day with picnics, music and relatively few arrests.

This year was set to be the biggest celebration of 420 yet, given that in the year 2020 rather than just occurring on one day, the entire month of April would have been dated 4/20. Huge protests and parties had been planned across the globe to call on governments to decriminalise cannabis, carrying forward the momentum we’ve seen in countries such as America, Canada, Uruguay, Jamaica and Portugal.

 Hyde Park on 4/20


Given the current international crisis, all events have rightly been cancelled and for the first time in years, no-one is heading to Hyde Park. The coronavirus lockdown means that people will be instead celebrating 420 from safely inside their own homes.

But why do people need 420, a day to protest and celebrate a plant? Given that over a third of the population have used cannabis, why is it illegal in the UK at all? Why can being in possession of cannabis flower grown at home land you in prison, but those who can afford it can purchase that exact same flower from a private doctor without fear of prosecution or conviction?

The answers can be found by looking back through the history of cannabis prohibition, to help us better understand the present day.

Cannabis has been used as a medicine for thousands of years all over the world including in India, China and the Middle East. Cannabis began its relationship with humanity nearly 150,000 years ago, according to fossil records from what is now Central Russia which show concentrated pollen grains - indicating concentrated crop growth in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. More amazing still are the archeological traces - from hash offerings in tombs unearthed in Palestine, to burial shrouds in the Balkans, to the fact that cannabis is one of the 50 "fundamental" herbs in traditional Chinese medicine.

Ancient Cannabis Medicine

In 1843, a medical article on the clinical use of cannabis in the UK reported its effectiveness for a wide range of conditions, including cholera, tetanus, joint pain, and seizures. By the late 1800’s cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies and doctor’s offices throughout Europe and the United States.

Even Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis to help ease her menstrual pain. Her physician J.R. Reynolds’ publicly recommended cannabis not only for pain but also for migraine, epilepsy, depression, asthma, and seizures. He wrote in The Lancet in 1890, that cannabis ‘when pure and administered carefully, is one of the most valuable medicines we possess’.

The demonisation of cannabis began at the point that Western Imperial powers saw its connection to the indigenous cultures that they were governing.  At the turn of the century, British politicians began to demonise cannabis use in the colonies, with one MP stating “lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers”. An official inquiry in 1894 finally proved no link between cannabis and mental health or anti-social behaviour, but the British government still tried to ban it in India several times.

During the 1924-25 League of Nations opium conferences Egyptian officials pressed for international cannabis regulation, claiming that it was as dangerous as opium. It had already been banned in Jamaica in 1913, due to its apparently "demoralising and deplorable" effect on "the natives”. The moral panic around cannabis was rooted in a social control that soon amounted to an international ban by the League of Nations in 1928. It was then that cannabis prohibition then began in the UK - as a result of international pressures, rather than a domestic problem.

At the same time the U.S. had launched its own racially-obsessed campaign against cannabis, rebranding it as the Mexican word ‘marijuana’ to stir up tensions over the recent influx of migrants from the south. For the prohibitionists of nearly a century ago, the exotic-sounding word emphasised foreignness to white Americans and appealed to the xenophobia of the time. 

 Harry Anslinger, the government official who led the prohibition effort, notably said:

 “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Reefer Madness


Decades later the British government hardened its drug policy approach as people began challenging the established order. In the swinging 60s and 70s, cannabis was associated with the waves of migrants from the Caribbean and to the counter-culture and hippie movements. It’s popularity was perceived as a threat to social norms, thus policy makers introduced the ‘Misuse of Drugs Act’ in 1971. Cannabis was classified as a class B - alongside ketamine, speed and MCAT. Punishment is unlimited fines and a potential 5 years in prison for possession, or up-to 14 years in prison for supply.

People of colour use and sell cannabis at similar rates to white people, yet have been more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and harshly sentenced, and suffer most from the repercussions of a lifelong criminal record. The impact of a drug conviction, however minor, is wide-reaching in its harms beyond incarceration and creates barriers to education, housing, employment and more.

Jump forward to the 2000’s when cannabis was downgraded from Class B to Class C in 2004 - only to be raised back up to Class B just five years later in 2009. It was lowered under Tony Blair’s government by former Labour MP David Blunkett who expressed support for its medical uses, specifically as a treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS). Lowering it to Class C kept it criminalised, but opened doors to medical research and access.


The u-turn came about under Gordon Brown’s subsequent leadership, despite evidence showing that national cannabis use and medical admissions had been steadily decreasing. The reclassification was a power move to show that “the UK is not a soft touch” under Brown, as he attempted to win voters around in the lead up to the late 2009 election.

It's not just a joint. Warrington Council poster 


Currently cannabis medicines can be prescribed by the NHS in specific cases, such for children with rare forms of epilepsy like Lennox Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome. Medicinal cannabis can also be prescribed at private clinics, for a wider range of ailments. However prescriptions are rare and expensive, and are on the most part inaccessible to the majority of people who could benefit. 

In 2018 the government issued a statement making clear that there are ‘no plans to legalise or decriminalise the drug’, putting it firmly out of touch with the British public. Over 50% of people in the UK are in favour of legalising the recreational use of cannabis and nearly 75% support its use for medicinal purposes. Enforcement varies hugely between police forces, with some de-prioritising cannabis convictions and instead using warnings. But the Home Office has responded to some forces affirming that police are expected to actively enforce the law, as possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence.


Internationally, we’re lagging behind progress. Around the world, the way different countries have handled the process of legalisation is very much varied. Uruguay simply made cannabis legal, whereas Jamaica and Portugal have gone the route of decriminalisation. Canada legalised medical cannabis in 2001, and recreational cannabis in 2018. The U.S. is in the unusual situation of having it criminalised at federal level, but legalised differently state by state. In California cannabis can be bought and grown for recreational use, but in Florida it can only be used medicinally, and in Idaho it remains fully illegal.

Until cannabis laws change in the UK, 420 will continue to be a day lead more by protest than celebration. Simply possessing or advocating for the plant is an act of rebellion. Whether those thousands of people gather at Hyde Park in a united act of defiance, or they quietly discuss their desire for change in living rooms across the country, April 20th remains and will always be a unique and impactful day in the cannabis calendar.


Cannabis history is the history of the oppression of working class and marginalised peoples. It’s often incomplete, and vast parts are ignored by many historians - if you think we’ve missed something, let us know in the comments!


Nelly Drummond - September 21 2022

Great article! We are going to include a link this post in our next blog write up on our UK cannabis website ‘High Committee’. Feel free to check it out here: Cheers!

Stephanie Desborough - April 20 2020

Happy 420 xxx

Anthony C Heaford - April 20 2020

Excellent overview of the criminalisation of cannabis use in Britain – thank-you

To reinforce the highlighted government hypocrisy on drugs, during my British army service in Helmand (2012) I was ordered to PROTECT farmers who were harvesting opium on government land besides Camp Bastion fence, protecting them from interference by the Afghan security forces. On exactly the same day other British soldiers were assisting Afghan security forces to destroy poppy fields belonging to poor Afghan farmers 15-km further south.

Back in Britain a few years later, when I was diagnosed with a moral injury and debilitating stress as a result of my military service, my doctor has refused to consider prescribing me medicinal cannabis, even mocking me and using his power to deny me this legal medicine to aggravate my state of mind further.

We live in a very sick society and the decriminalisation of cannabis is certainly part of the cure in my opinion.

Anthony - April 20 2020

The U.K gov have legalized cannabis for use by big pharma whilst keeping cannabis illegal for all the public and for those who choose to self medicate at home causing no harm to any other person or the state. LEGALISE NOW

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