Leader comment: Caution needed in cannabis legalisation debate

FORMER cabinet minister William Hague is, without doubt, a man whose views on the matters of the day still merit attention despite his departure from the political front-line.

Cannabis plants

Thoughtful, quick-witted and - freed from the responsibility of office - Mr Hague now enjoys the luxury of saying whatever he thinks about whatever he wants and our national discourse is the better for it. And so The Scotsman believes his call for the legalisation of cannabis is worthy of serious discussion. Already a number of other political figures have echoed his call for the drug to be made available legally to recreational users and it is undoubtedly the case that many will rally behind the call, seeing it as an important matter of personal freedom.

We would urge caution. In recent years, the Scottish Government has taken decisive action to tackle the use and abuse of those legal - and dangerous - drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Better education about the physical and emotional cost of drinking and smoking means no serious politician would encourage the public to turn to these substances. Why, then, would it make sense to send a signal that the use of cannabis is fine?

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There are well-rehearsed arguments about cannabis being less dangerous than alcohol. This is not necessarily so. Cannabis users may be less like to become violent or lose physical control while under the influence than those who drink heavily, but the physical risks of smoking are well-established. Numerous studies have warned of the long-term effect of cannabis and other mood-altering substances on the brain. For some users, especially young people whose brains are still developing, this can mean serious, lifelong mental health issues.

Right now, there is more heat than light around this debate and we will have to hear far greater detail and stronger pro-legalisation arguments to change our considered opposition to making the drug freely available.

The use of cannabis products in medical treatment is an area where we believe the law should grant permission. The carefully monitored use of the substance, where it is proved to be effective in the treatment of those suffering chronic illness, should be an option open to doctors in the UK. It seems perverse to us that we are happy for the NHS to prescribe medical heroin while it is banned from using cannabis.

But a decision to legalise cannabis for recreational use may create problems that will put our NHS under even greater pressure than it now is.