Kenny MacAskill: Legalising cannabis is the way forward

If cannabis is good enough for Billy Caldwell, it's good enough to be legalised, says Kenny MacAskill

Billy Caldwell with his mother Charlotte, who  has won permission to treat her sons epilepsy with medicinal cannabis. Picture: PA
Billy Caldwell with his mother Charlotte, who has won permission to treat her sons epilepsy with medicinal cannabis. Picture: PA

The UK Government’s decision to allow medicinal cannabis treatment for Billy Caldwell and establish a panel to consider its future use is not only the right one but long overdue. But, it has also opened up the debate up on the legalisation of cannabis itself with Lord Hague, a former Tory leader, now supporting its legalisation – and why not? After all as the former Foreign Secretary has said the war on drugs is lost and the benefits of medical use are long proven and allowed elsewhere. The issue is set to run and the formerly irredentist position of the Government to be rightly challenged.

Debate on medicinal use has been an issue well before Billy Caldwell’s mother started her redoubtable campaign. The benefits of medicinal cannabis are well known as proven by their use elsewhere and confirmed by the UK being the world’s largest medicinal cannabis manufacturer. Even the spouses of Tory ministers are involved in that industry and yet its been precluded to date from being offered as a treatment in the UK. If it was so bad what are we and they doing and on what moral basis are we selling it? At best it smacks of rank hypocrisy and worst it would be as shameful as the arms trade.

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The pictures of the healing effects of medicinal cannabis on young Billy Caldwell have been shown but the benefits are not simply for those suffering from epileptic seizures but across many other illnesses and conditions. Many years ago, when Justice Secretary, I was approached by a constituent who had been badly injured in a road traffic accident. He was left with long-term chronic pain for which prescribed medicines were either inadequate to address the extent of the hurt or inappropriate for long-term use. Cannabis was,though, an effective pain relief if not healer and even his GP acknowledged that. I made extensive enquiries to see if anything could be done but sadly it couldn’t.

Drug laws are reserved and there was no give whatsoever, so this is a welcome start. Others including cancer victims are equally afflicted. What many aren’t perhaps aware of is that medicinal cannabis isn’t the provision of some giant spliff to be smoked benignly but more normally the issuing of a capsule to be consumed, though other treatments including patches are also available. It’s a clinical decision as with other treatments and it takes place in many jurisdictions around the world.

Canada has allowed it since 2001 and the apocalypse hasn’t befallen it but sufferers have benefited through pain relief and other healing effects. Indeed, Canada is now moving towards full legalisation of cannabis within the next few months, allowing not just for medicinal use but recreational choice. It’s not happening on a province by province basis, as with states in the USA where more and more are allowing it even whilst Trump continues the mantra of war, but across the whole Federation from Atlantic coast to Pacific shores.

Moreover, its being implemented by Premier Trudeau’s Liberal administration but its coming about with the full support of all the major political parties. Indeed, the most recent opposition appears to be from the recently elected Conservative leader in Ontario who isn’t arguing against its legalisation but seeking the involvement of the private sector rather than it being supplied through a state monopoly. Other debates are likewise on the practicalities rather than the principles.

The debate in the UK will proceed likewise I’m sure. Its hard to see the UK Government being able to roll back from medicinal use and even less likely that any expert panel will preclude it. How can you alleviate the suffering of young Bill Caldwell yet enforce it on others equally deserving of some palliative or treatment. Likewise its hard to see given all the evidence how approval won’t be given. Political hostility has not just lessened but is switching to support, from the First Minister to Dianne Abbott who have both come aboard.

But, why limit it to medicinal use as both Lord Hague argues and Canada shows? I don’t use it and tend to frown upon recreational drug use, viewing it as hedonistic but fully accept the hypocrisy that runs within that argument as someone who consumes alcohol. All the evidence tends to show that alcohol is more harmful than cannabis to both the individual and society.

Legalisation won’t end the war on drugs, though may take some of the sting out of it. It’s a start though as to how we address matters. Ramping up and tooling up isn’t working and indeed is clearly failing as drug wars on the streets of Glasgow show. Other methods that are health not justice-based need implemented such as drug consumption rooms that also operate in Canada. The UK Government’s intransigence has been as myopic as its previous view on medicinal cannabis.

To be effective laws need to be accepted. People accept that assault and robbery are wrong and probably also the consumption of heroin or cocaine at the moment. But, that’s not the case with cannabis. Probably a majority or at last a significant minority neither view it as a threat nor a crime. Instead we’re criminalising many and especially a younger generation. Penalties for possession are low but the consequences can be severe. Middle class kids can have careers closed to them and working class kids left embittered. Arguments on strength and potency are better addressed through regulation than criminalisation, where at least you have control.

Surely it’s better to follow the old political dictum of tax and spend. It’s estimated that the profits from legalisation for Canada will be $4 billion Canadian. Yes, billion not million and even at an exchange rate of $1.6 to the pound still a huge sum. Whether through a state monopoly or through tax, all that could be put to good use advising on health risks and treating substance abusers.

Let’s tax and spend, not wage a futile war.