The government has rejected a call from Lord Hague to consider legalizing the recreational use of cannabis.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph, the former Tory leader said the war on cannabis had been “irreversibly lost” and a change of policy was needed.
His call was prompted by the case of a boy with epilepsy who was given a special license to use cannabis oil.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has told MPs there will be a review of the medical use of cannabis in the UK.
The Home Office has set up an expert panel to review the rules on the therapeutic use of the drug, but a spokesman stressed that the existing laws on the recreational use of cannabis would not be changed.
“Any debate within government about the efficacy and therapeutic use of cannabis-based medicines emphatically does not extend to any review regarding the classification of cannabis and the penalties for the illicit possession, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis will remain the same.”
Why is medical cannabis illegal?
Cannabis is not recognized as having any therapeutic value under the law in England and Wales and anyone buying or using it can be arrested or jailed.
One cannabis-based product – Sativex – can be legally prescribed in limited circumstances usually to help alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and the government is open to further applications.
The parents of children with severe epilepsy are calling for cannabis-derived drugs to be made available to their offspring.
Last week officials at Heathrow Airport confiscated Billy Caldwell’s cannabis oil, which the 12-year-old’s mother Charlotte had been attempting to bring into the UK from Canada.
The Home Office returned some of the medicine after protests from Ms Caldwell, and assurances from the medical team treating Billy that the treatment was necessary.
Billy was discharged from hospital on Monday, but will continue to be treated with the oil.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was obvious the government was not “getting the law on this kind of thing right” and suggested a review would take place “as quickly as possible”.
Lord Hague said the debate about Billy Caldwell was “one of those illuminating moments when a longstanding policy is revealed to be inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date”.
By returning the medicine to the Caldwell family, the Home Office had “implicitly conceded that the law has become indefensible”, he said.
Licensing cannabis for medical use would be a “step forward”, he said, but the Conservatives should be as “bold” as Canada where state-regulated recreational consumption was being considered.
Others have said he is danger of confusing two separate issues.
Will Lord Hague’s words have any effect?
Lord Hague is not the first politician to call for the legalization of cannabis – but he is the most senior Conservative to do so. The party has traditionally taken a hard line on drugs, including when Lord Hague was its leader between 1997 and 2001.
He now says it is “deluded” to think cannabis could be driven off the streets, adding that the “battle is effectively over”.
He said the fact that cannabis was both illegal and widely available effectively permitted “the worst of all worlds” to arise: encouraging more potent and dangerous variants of the drug, with users reluctant to seek help.
He said the “only beneficiaries” of the current law were “organized crime gangs”.
Similar arguments have been made for decades by those campaigning for the liberalization of drugs laws, with little impact on government.
Many other countries, including much of the US, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, have legalized the use of medicinal cannabis, but very few have legalized recreational use.
Prime Minister Theresa May remains firmly opposed to legalization or decriminalization of the drug because of the harm she says it does to individual users and communities.
Legalization or decriminalization?
Legalization of cannabis could see it being sold in shops or by licensed distributors, in the same way as alcohol or tobacco.
This differs from decriminalization, under which possession of the drug is no longer a criminal offence, but sales are still prohibited.
The UK downgraded cannabis to a Class C drug in 2002 – putting it in the same category as steroids – with possession of small quantities no longer an arrestable offence.
But it was moved back up to Class B by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2008, with penalties for possession of up to five years in prison.
Supplying attracts a sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
According to Home Office statistics, cannabis was the most commonly used drug in the UK in 2016-17, with 6.6% of adults aged 16 to 59 having used it. That’s about 2.2 million people.
Who else is in favor of a change in the law?
Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said his party supported the legal sale of cannabis for recreational use provided it was “properly regulated” and sold by “legalized distributors”, which he said “would reduce the harm caused by “potent and damaging forms” of the drug.
He claimed legalization would not lead to greater consumption, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today program: “If it was carefully regulated and heavily taxed there wouldn’t be any incentive to use it.”
The Green Party is also in favor of legalization of cannabis, arguing it would “reduce the harm associated with it”.
Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he would decriminalize cannabis for medicinal purposes.
But a Labor government would “look at the medical effects on the wider community and on cannabis users” before deciding whether to back legalization for recreational use, he added.
Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, chairman of an all-party Parliamentary Group on drugs reform, said Lord Hague was “absolutely right” and the current laws had failed, adding that selling cannabis legally would generate substantial tax revenues.
The majority of assembly members in Wales, the SNP and all parties in Northern Ireland except the DUP have backed medical legalization of cannabis.
The Royal College of Nursing also voted overwhelmingly in favor of lobbying the government to make it legal for medical use last month.
Who is against it?
The Royal College of Psychiatrists says legalization for recreational and medicinal use should be considered as distinct. It says cannabis carries significant mental health risks but it supports the medicinal use of approved cannabis products.
Campaigners against legalization argue that it would normalize the use of drugs among children and lead to greater addiction and health problems.
Conservative MP Laurence Robertson warned it could lead to cannabis being sold in shops “alongside Mars bars and cans of coke” and that it would not kill off the “illicit” trade in the drug, saying taxing cigarettes had led to a booming black market.
Prime Minister Theresa May last year vowed to continue the “war on drugs,” saying “the incredible damage [drugs] can do to families and the individuals concerned”.