Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Times really have changed if a former Tory leader is calling for cannabis to be legalised

Good on William Hague, says Fionola Meredith ­- but don't expect cool reason and common sense to win the day

William Hague calling for the legalisation of cannabis is a bit of a shock, like finding out your Great Aunt Mavis is a secret hash fiend. I'm sure Lord Hague, as an upstanding senior Conservative and former Tory party leader, has never indulged in the fragrant haze of an illicit spliff. Neither, to my knowledge, has he morphed into a version of that hippie bishop in Father Ted, who takes off for California in a camper van after Dougal accidentally manages to destroy his faith.

Lord Hague has, very rationally and sensibly, urged the Prime Minister to change the UK's drug policy, describing it as "inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date".

He said cannabis was ubiquitous, which therefore made it pointless to order police to stop people smoking it. The strategy was, he said, "about as up to date and relevant as asking the army to recover the empire".

Hague thinks that licensing cannabis for medical use would be a step forward, but ultimately he wants the government to emulate the bold moves made by Canada, which has now gone the whole happy hog and legalised the drug for recreational use.

If a fusty old Tory - and let's face it, even when he was the teenage star-turn at the 1977 Conservative party conference, Hague was already 64 years old in spirit - thinks that we should take a more reflective, evidence-based and open-minded approach to marijuana, then the time really has come for change.

Of course, the reason we're talking about this at all is because of Tyrone woman Charlotte Caldwell, whose astonishing fight to get high-concentrate medical cannabis oil treatment returned to her epileptic son Billy catalysed such enormous public sympathy and support.

It is truly appalling that it took Billy to fall dangerously ill, suffering renewed seizures, before the Home Office was prepared to act and give him back the legitimate medication he needed - medication which is perfectly legal in many other countries, including the US, Canada and several EU states. The most bitterly ironic fact in all this is that the UK is actually the world's biggest producer of medical cannabis.

Now, due to Caldwell's indefatigable efforts, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has at last announced a government review. But he declared that there would be absolutely no question - no, none whatsoever, Lord Hague - of the government legalising cannabis for recreational use. There will still be penalties for unauthorised supply and possession.

Medical cannabis is clearly in a different category from the stuff people use to make them feel high. The former is a powerful treatment for the relief of specific symptoms, prescribed by doctors. Patients hail it as a life-saver. The latter simply makes users feel pleasantly warm, spaced out and fuzzy round the edges. That's why it's called dope, I guess.

Politicians are notoriously averse to relaxing any of the rules on cannabis because they fear looking as though they are going soft on the "war on drugs". Hence Javid's muscular talk of tough penalties for marijuana miscreants.

Government policy on cannabis use - whether medicinal or recreational - appears absurdly influenced by gut feeling, moral opprobrium and heightened emotion, rather than solid research, expert opinion and clear-cut evidence, in a way that is true of few other issues.

Earlier this month, a report by an international development organisation called Health Poverty Action (HPA) claimed that introducing a legal, regulated cannabis market to the UK could net the Treasury billions of pounds in tax revenues.

There's a lot of merit in HPA's plan. Decriminalise cannabis, and you immediately ease pressure on the police and judicial system. Take the drug out of the hands of pushers, peddlers and - in the case of Northern Ireland - the paramilitaries, and you have a more predictable substance which can be monitored and tested for safe potency limits. What's not to like?

Meanwhile, the excessive use, and abuse, of a completely different, perfectly legal and socially acceptable drug is currently causing havoc in the NHS. Alcohol is estimated to cost the health service around £3.5bn per year. HPA says that legalising cannabis could bring in £1bn and £3.5bn, which would go a long way towards making up the shortfall in the NHS budget.

Certainly, there are risks associated with taking cannabis, but a study of drug harms, published in The Lancet, found that alcohol was the most harmful drug overall.

Expecting logic, reason and common sense to prevail in a debate about drugs, however, remains little more than a pipe dream.

Belfast Telegraph

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