Pubdate: 21 June 1999
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 1999
Author: Tim Winkler


The recreational smoking of cannabis should be legalised, according to
an influential group of Scottish doctors.

While medics have frequently supported the use of cannabis for
medicinal purposes, the British Medical Association's committee for
public health medicine and community health has advocated legalisation
for recreational use, to sever the link between pot and hard drugs.

Dr George Venters, the committee's chairman, said yesterday that young
people are encouraged to see cannabis in the same light as more
dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin because of its illegal status.

He said: "Legally it is in the same boat as heroin and cocaine and
that's entirely anomalous. Cannabis has been around a long time. It's
not addictive, it's not in the same league as these other drugs."

Dr Venters, a consultant in public health medicine with Lanarkshire
Health, said that cannabis was less dangerous than legal drugs such as
alcohol and cigarettes.

"Alcohol is a damn site more toxic a substance than the cannabinoids
[cannabis derivatives]. If we want to be listened to about drugs we
cannot talka lot of nonsense. Young people know exactly what is going

The committee will bring a motion advocating decriminalisation of
cannabis to next month's BMA annual conference, but have little hope
of the motion being endorsed.

A fortnight ago, the group's views failed to gain support at the
annual national meeting of public health doctors.

Dr Venters said: "As a committee, we just realised that it is very
likely cannabis will be used as a medicinal drug and it is an anomaly
to prohibit it. It should at least be discussed by the medical
profession. It's like the fluoridation of water. It's got political
overtones to it, but it should be discussed."

Drug agencies have rejected the call, saying decriminalisation could
lead young people closer to hard drugs.

Alistair Ramsay, the director of Scotland Against Drugs, said a House
of Lords select committee had investigated the legal status of
cannabis last year and found no reason to decriminalise or legalise
the drug.

He said: "It would seem to me we would be unable to ignore that kind
of evidence. Cannabis can be a gateway to a drugs career. There are
certainly a significant number of people whose health has been
compromised by drugs who started on cannabis and graduated on to
progressively harder drugs."

In the Netherlands, where cannabis had been decriminalised,
researchers had found that youths had bypassed the drug, going
straight on to amphetamines, Mr Ramsay said.

"We have to be very careful about the legal status of all drugs and
not just concentrate on the legal status of one. Generally, I think
the public would not support legalisation of cannabis, anyway."

However, Dr Venters' committee is not without friends in the debate.
In April 1997, Richard Branson, the Virgin businessman and Sir Paul
McCartney were among 100 psychiatrists, doctors and celebrities to
sign a petition calling for the legalisation of cannabis.

In April this year, Pat Chalmers, an Aberdeenshire councillor and the
convener of Grampian Police Board, also advocated decriminalisation,
saying the anti-drugs message was devalued by attempts to demonise

The BMA voted to support the use of cannabinoids in 1997, but only for
medicinal uses. It decided not to support complete decriminalisation
of cannabis because of the harmful effects of smoking the drug,
including an increased risk of heart disease and bronchitis.

Cannabis has been used to relieve pain for thousands of years and has
been demonstrated to help sufferers of illnesses such as cancer and
multiple sclerosis.

The Government authorised the first official medical trials of
cannabis last year, granting GW Pharmaceuticals permission to grow
cannabis and administer it in clinical trials.

The research company constructed a UKP4 million greenhouse at a secret
location to grow a crop of highly potent, seedless sinsemilla plants
to produce the cannabis and has begun clinical trials at Hammersmith
Hospital in west London and Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.

At Hammersmith, 300 patients will be given cannabis through specially
designed oral inhalers to treat post-operative pain, while 600
multiple sclerosis sufferers will be treated with the drug at Plymouth.

If the trials are successful they could pave the way for cannabis to
be legalised for medicinal prescriptions.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that four research groups, including GW
Pharmaceuticals, held UK licences to research the therapeutic uses of
cannabis, but the Government believed recreational use should remain
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