Should the UK decriminalise cannabis use?
Several countries have already liberalised laws concerning use of the drug, and Canada could become the latest to legalise its sale following the recent election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister.
The Liberal leader made legalisation of marijuana a key policy in his party’s manifesto, pledging to regulate the sale of the drug to ensure profits were diverted from organised crime.
Personal and medical use of the drug is already legal in the US states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.
In Europe, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Slovenia have all decriminalised the drug to varying degrees in recent years, while small-scale sales for personal use have famously been permitted in several Dutch cities for more than 40 years.
But the sale, use or possession of cannabis remains illegal in the UK.
It is categorised as a Class B drug and anyone caught in possession could face up to five years in prison, as well as an unlimited fine. Those convicted of the production and supply of cannabis could face up to 14-years in prison as well as an unlimited fine.
David Liddell, director at the Scottish Drugs Forum, a partnership which tries to combat the problems of drugs in Scotland, said a number of options were available to legislators, including the status quo.
He said: “From our point of you, most of the harm done by cannabis are not necessarily reduced by decriminalisation; however, there is an argument that people experiencing problems may engage more readily and effectively with services if the substance was not illegal.
“There is also the argument that we should not be criminalising a group of people who otherwise would not be engaged with criminal justice.
“There is a debate to be had and our hope would be that that debate could achieve a consensus based on sound evidence after a considered and inclusive debate on the issue.”
The BBC reported there were at least 1,689 police raids on commercial cannabis farms operating in the UK in the last year.
It is estimated around 8.4 per cent of Scots use cannabis every year, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, while 20.5 per cent will try it at least once during their lifetime.
The regulation of proscribed drugs remains a reserved issue and policy is set by the UK Government.
The Liberal Democrats this month announced the creation of an expert panel to examine how a legal framework for the sale of the cannabis could work.
The party’s health spokesman Norman Lamb said: “I share people’s concerns about the health impacts of any drug – legal or illegal. But we can better manage that harm by taking the money that’s currently spent on policing the illegal cannabis market and spending it on public health education and restrictions at the point of sale.
“That’s the approach we have taken with cigarettes and it has led to dramatic reductions in smoking in recent years.”
Professor David Nutt, a former UK Government drugs adviser, called on the Scottish Government to class cannabis and MDMA as medicines so they could be used to treat pain and stress at a speech at Edinburgh Science Festival in April.
“Scotland has its own health service and it’s perfectly possible for Scotland to say we want to start developing cannabis and MDMA medicines that would have a massive impact on not only the patient base in Scotland but also on the economy of Scotland,” he said.
Mike Penning MP, minister for policing and criminal justice, said: “The Government has no plans to legalise or decriminalise cannabis. There is clear scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health, and harms individuals and communities.
“We take an evidence-based approach to tackling the use and supply of drugs, and they are illegal where scientific and medical analysis has shown they are harmful to human health. There is evidence our approach is working with a long-term downward trend in drug use.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Cannabis is a class B substance under the terms of the UK wide Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, any decision about legislation is reserved to the UK Government.”