Chris Marshall: Hague may mean well but cannabis is still a real risk to users

William Hague has sparked debate by calling for the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use. Picture: Getty
William Hague has sparked debate by calling for the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use. Picture: Getty
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Medicinal use must be legalised – but conflating that with recreational use is a red herring, says Chris Marshall

William Hague once famously bragged of drinking 14 pints a day, but he doesn’t strike me as someone who has spent a lot of time getting high.

The former Conservative leader has sparked debate by calling for the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, a policy currently being enacted in Canada.

At the risk of sounding like an ageing politician myself, I smoked drugs when I was at university – some of my friends did little else but smoke drugs.

But the belief that cannabis is not addictive or that it doesn’t have the ability to utterly destroy lives is dangerously misguided.

The same is true of alcohol, a drug which has had a toxic effect on Scotland, putting untold stress on our health service and criminal justice system.

The well-known and deleterious effects of drink are not an argument in favour of legalising marijuana.

Just as there are many of us who enjoy a drink without it slipping over into something resembling calamitous addiction, so too there are those who can enjoy the occasional joint without consequence.

But there are others for whom casual drug use turns into something more regimented, a habit which comes to dominate their every waking hour.

Best case scenario, that can mean nothing more than stoner apathy, minds that were once sharp and inquisitive being dulled by a daily diet of psychoactive drugs.

At the other end of the scale, however, there are those who can suffer a range of mental health problems including anxiety, depression and paranoia.

At worst, there are those who can suffer psychotic episodes, with the effect of the drug staying in their system far longer than they realise.

It’s long been suggested that many of those who exhibit such symptoms had them all along and were simply drawn to cannabis as a means of self-medicating.

While that may be the case, why would we officially sanction a drug which has the ability to devastate promising young lives?

Lord Hague is right about one thing, however: the so-called war on drugs has long since been lost.

It was a battle in which we were always destined to fail, having been set up from a utterly flawed premise that dealers and users are one and the same: criminals to be targeted with the full force of the law.

Let’s face it, users of cannabis are not generally on the frontline in the war on drugs, a position usually reserved for those who inject heroin.

Since 2016, most people found in possession of a small amount of cannabis in Scotland have been given a Recorded Police Warning, meaning they avoid prosecution. Effectively, the drug has already been decriminalised.

Meanwhile, opioid users continue to account for the majority of our country’s drug deaths, which totalled 867 in 2016, not only the largest figure since records began but also the highest rate of death of any European Union country. Yet the Conservative government at Westminster refuses to even countenance the prospect of Glasgow opening the UK’s first drug consumption room, which would allow users to inject their own heroin in safe and sterile surroundings while also helping halt the worrying spread of HIV infection.

Those who support the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use have received fresh impetus from across the Atlantic, where the drug is now available to anyone over the age of 21 in nine US states.

All eyes are currently on Canada where prime minister Justin Trudeau has committed to making marijuana legal by the summer, with the drug expected to be available to buy by late August or early September.

If there is a cautionary tale for North America, it comes from the Netherlands, which Dutch police have warned is turning into a “narco state”.

It’s claimed the Dutch tolerance towards cannabis has helped strengthen criminal gangs responsible for the supply of other drugs, such as ecstasy and cocaine, across much of Europe and the United States.

Of course the real reason cannabis has gone to the top of the political agenda in the UK has little to do with recreation.

The case of Billy Caldwell, who has severe epilepsy, has highlighted the vagaries of a cruel system where a child cannot have access to relatively cheap drug which could significantly reduce his suffering.

It is shameful that it took the campaigning of Billy’s mother, Charlotte, and others like her, for Home Secretary Sajid Javid to belatedly announce a review of medicinal cannabis use.

The UK is badly behind the curve on the issue, with medicinal cannabis already legal in 29 US states and elsewhere in the EU, including Germany, Italy and Spain.

Lord Hague knows there is a world of difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis. By conflating the two issues he does a disservice to both. But then politicians are well known for Damascene conversions when no longer encumbered by the responsibilities of office.

Scotland’s former justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, not particularly exercised by drug legalisation while in government, has argued in favour of decriminalising cannabis since retiring as an MSP.

Lord Hague could have been a powerful voice for reform while party leader or a member of the cabinet, but has waited until now to air his views in a newspaper.

Scotland’s chronic drug problem is there for all to see – it won’t be solved by legalising cannabis.