Few debates are as contentious as the arguments for and against the legalisation of cannabis. Supporters claim it can be used to treat pain and is no more harmful than alcohol, while opponents point to users of the drug developing mental health problems. IAN CRAIG looks at the issues.

EVERYONE it seems has an opinion on whether or not cannabis should be legalised.

Supporters say it can be used to treat chronic pain and halt the progression of degenerative neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, with some even claiming it can cure cancer.

As a result, support for the drug being legalised for medical use is widespread.

But opponents have argued cannabis users have been seen to develop serious psychological disorders and memory loss, while its effect on co-ordination and balance can be dangerous if users attempt to drive or use machinery.

Newport West MP Paul Flynn has long called for the drug to be legalised, calling it “the oldest medicine in the world”, and last week introduced a Parliamentary bill calling for cannabis to be downgraded to schedule two – meaning it can be used for medical purposes, but not recreational.

Although cannabis-based medication Sativex, which is used to treat pain for people with multiple sclerosis, or MS, is currently available on the NHS in Wales and in the UK, the drug itself remains illegal as a ‘Class B’ substance, with possession carrying a potential jail sentence of up to five years, or an unlimited fine. Meanwhile, anyone caught growing or selling the drug can be jailed for up to 14 years, or ordered to pay an unlimited fine.

Speaking in Parliament last week Mr Flynn said he believed the UK should follow Holland’s example and adopt a so-called ‘tolerance’ policy towards ‘soft’ drugs. Although drug possession, use and supply is illegal in the Netherlands, those with small amounts of cannabis or similar drugs are not prosecuted.

Calling Holland’s policies “intelligent (and) pragmatic”, in comparison with the UK’s “harsh (and) unintelligent” approach, Mr Flynn said: “The government there (in Holland) have shown a welcome desire to reflect on the failed drug policies here and introduce new measures that reflect the reality of the situation, in having drug houses that can be used and possibly looking again at imprisoning people for using the medicine of their choice.

“Is it not time we decided who has got it right over the last five years – the Netherlands or us?”

Replying to the Labour MP justice secretary Sam Gyimah replied: “I am willing to learn from all different jurisdictions to see how we can improve what we are doing here.”

Cwmbran pensioner Sue Cox was diagnosed with MS three years ago and has also called for cannabis-based medication to be available on the NHS to control the pain and spasms she experiences on a daily basis.

Speaking to the Argus earlier this year she said: “I’ve tried cannabis over the years.

“I know it’s illegal and I’m risking prosecution but it has helped me to manage the pain and spasms I have.

“Knowing where to get it has been a problem.

“I don’t want to be going to a dodgy drug dealer at the street corner, I don’t know where it has come from and I don’t know what’s in it either.”

She added: “People with MS face a daily struggle to manage our symptoms. If the governments in Ireland, Germany and Canada can legalise cannabis for medicinal use, surely the Welsh Government can do the same.”

But what do Argus readers think?

A poll on the Argus website showed 76 per cent of readers were in favour of legalising cannabis, and an article on Mr Flynn’s bill last week attracted scores of comments, both for and against the idea.

Writing on the Argus’ Facebook page Duncan Campbell said: “Legalise all drugs, sell them through licensed outlets ensuring that they are good quality, pay tax on them, eradicate the black market supply reducing the crime rate and free up the police for doing other important stuff like persecuting motorists.”

And Jim Kirk said: “They should legalise all drugs. People will always find a way to get them anyway.

“If they were all legal then they impurities could be monitored so they wouldn’t be cut with drain cleaner etc, plus the government would get vital tax money which would undoubtedly be put to better use than lining some drug pushers pocket.”

Meanwhile James Tanner said: “The war on drugs is lost, all forms of them should be legalised, controlled and taken out of the hands of criminals.

“The people who want to poison themselves with the stuff can do so knowing exactly what they are taking and what’s been mixed with it to cut it down, then the police time and jail spaces saved by what is a pretty impossible task of controlling these substances can be put into making society safer for everyone.”

And Martin Bentley suggested: “Legalised but only for consumption in designated venues, and make the penalty for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol a lot harsher.”

But, writing on the Argus website, mervynjames2242 said: “How many pro the argument are actually using cannabis for medical purposes? Stats say about one in 90! So we need to dump the idea this is just some sort of recreation without come-back.”

They added: “It is totally irresponsible to suggest complete freedom to take drugs, medical services would not cope with the after effects of that, the NHS cannot treat who they do now without considerable difficulties.

“It is time people took responsibility for their own lives if they are eating themselves to death and disease, they are off their heads on drugs, and expect the rest to pay for the damage it causes.

“If there are beneficial effects for people who are ill and not just stoned then it should be only via research and clinical dispensation.”

And user That’s that wrote: “Offering alternative medicines such as cannabis would eat into the profits of the mammoth pharmaceutical companies.

“With so many pensions, investments etc having stakes in these companies, politicians and like are no doubt concerned about the knock on effect of that. Whilst I would agree to cannabis potentially being legalised for medical purposes, I think its a very small chance it will happen.”

Director of external relations at the MS Society Genevieve Edwards said: “Evidence shows that cannabis for medicinal use can work for some people to relieve pain and muscle spasms in MS.

“These symptoms can be relentless and exhausting and make it impossible to manage daily life.

“Our research shows the majority of people with MS feel that cannabis should be legalised for medicinal purposes and we’ve asked the UK Government to make it available to the 10,000 people with MS who could benefit.”

But a Home Office spokesman said the government has “no plans” to legalise cannabis.

“Cannabis is controlled as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and, in its raw form, currently has no recognised medicinal benefits in the UK,” he said.

“It is important that medicines are thoroughly trialled to ensure they meet rigorous standards before being placed on the market so that doctors and patients are sure of their efficacy and safety.

“There is a clear regime in place, administered by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, to enable medicines, including those containing controlled drugs, to be developed, licensed and made available for medicinal use to patients in the UK.”

And a Welsh Government spokesman said: “Legal classification of drugs is not a devolved matter.

“The Welsh NHS was the first in the UK to fund Sativex, a cannabis-based medicine, for people with multiple sclerosis.

“The drug has been approved by the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group (AWMSG) so should be available to those MS patients who meet the clinical criteria specified by AWMSG and who are likely to benefit from it.”

Speaking last week Paul Flynn said: “It’s time for us, I believe, to lead public opinion rather than follow it.”

His bill will be given a second reading in Parliament in February but is unlikely to become law in its current form without government support or sufficient parliamentary time.

The debate will next be on the agenda at a meeting of the Welsh Assembly’s Cross-Party Group on Neurological Conditions at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay from midday until 1.30pm on Wednesday, October 25.