How the UK's cannabis law compares to other parts of the world

When a young epilepsy sufferer was denied access to what his mother called life-saving medical marijuana, there was outrage from some sections of the public.

Then, in an unprecedented move, Home Secretary Sajid Javid allowed authorities to return to Billy Caldwell the cannabis oil that his mother had flown to Canada to buy. Now former Tory leader William Hague has called for "a major change in policy" on cannabis.

Although legislation legalising cannabis for medical use may still be out of sight, a YouGov poll in May found that 75% of Brits think doctors should be able to prescribe cannabis for medical purposes.

Cannabis has been completely illegal in the UK since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which classified it as a class B drug. It was brought down to class C in 2004 before returning to class B in 2008.

If you are found in possession of a class B drug you could end up with five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. Supplying or producing class B drugs is punishable by to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.

While Britain is slowly liberalising its no tolerance approach on the subject, some countries are changing policy at lightning speed and others made changes years ago.

  • America

In states like California in America marijuana is sold over the counter in dispensaries. Credit: AP

For a country with traditionally conservative views, it might be surprising that the United States is leading the way on cannabis reform - medicinal marijuana is legal in 29 states and nine of them have legalised it for recreational use.

Under federal law in America cannabis is still entirely illegal however, because states can make their own laws, over half have legalised it in one form or another.

Since 1996 residents of California have been able to buy cannabis for medical purposes with a note from a doctor and it was legalised for recreational use in 2016. Adults over 21 can buy up to eight grams at a time and can grow up to six plants.

In Colorado there are more marijuana dispensaries than McDonald's and Starbucks combined.

  • Uruguay

Cannabis was legalised in Uruguay in 2013. Credit: AP

In 2013 Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the production and sale of cannabis with then-president José Mujica calling it an "experiment".

It appears the experiment was a success because in 2017 another cannabis law was passed, making Uruguay the first country in the world to sell the drug over the counter for recreational use.

Some campaigners in the small South American country want the law to go further in order to entirely legalise the drug for cultivation, sale, recreational use and medical use.

At the moment anyone wanting to grow cannabis in Uruguay must register and it can only be purchased over the counter in pharmacies.

  • Spain

Cannabis social clubs have existed in Barcelona for some time. Credit: PA

You may not know this, but among stoners Barcelona has been seen as the new Amsterdam ever since Catalonia legalised cannabis for cultivation, consumption and distribution in 2017.

For a long time Spain had a liberal view on the use of marijuana however in 1992 a law was passed that imposed fines on citizens who consumed or were in possession of drugs in public spaces.

This law directly led to a cultural revolution that started when campaigners illegally planted 200 cannabis plants in protest and were arrested.

In a show of support campaigners began cultivating more cannabis before police asked for judicial permission to destroy the plants.

The court ruled in favour of the campaigners, paving the way for the opening of cannabis social clubs all over Spain. There are over 800 cannabis social clubs throughout the country.

Though it is not strictly legal in Spain the right to privacy and the right of association mean it is difficult to prosecute against the social clubs.

  • The Netherlands

Though cannabis is illegal in Holland, decriminalisation means coffeeshops like this one are commonplace. Credit: PA

Something that may shock the average person about cannabis in Holland is that it is still technically illegal despite the huge market for it.

In actual fact marijuana is decriminalised in the Netherlands, meaning authorities turn a blind eye to personal possession of less than five grams and coffee shops are generally allowed to store up to 500g of cannabis on the premises at any one time.

It is illegal to grow cannabis in Holland but police will not prosecute where no more than five plants are grown for personal consumption.

Coffee shops play a large part in bringing tourism to Holland with 25-30 per cent of people who visit Amsterdam spending time in one.

  • North Korea

Hemp, a variety of cannabis used to make textiles, is a relied upon natural resource in North Korea. Credit: AP

Though very difficult to substantiate, for years there have been rumours on the internet that in the secretive dictatorship of North Korea, weed is completely legal.

Of the few who have gained permission to enter North Korea as tourists, some of them have reported an unusual liberal view on marijuana.

In 2013 a British blogger claimed to have smoked weed in North Korea and a Vice article in the same year said that cannabis is "not considered a drug" in the country, apparently making it legal.

There are many reports of cannabis being sold openly at huge markets in Rason, a Special Economic Zone in the northern corner of the country. Reports state that large amounts of the drug are sold at extremely low prices.

The massive bags of cannabis at markets in Rason are in actual fact, an Associated Press investigation found, bags of hemp. This variety of cannabis grows wild in the mountainous regions.

Hemp is a variety of cannabis that contains no tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active compound in cannabis, and is mainly used make a wide range of textiles.