William Hague has called for the Tories to consider legalising cannabis, claiming the war on drugs has been “comprehensively and irreversibly lost”.
The call comes as Prime Minister Theresa May faces increasing pressure to review drugs legislation following widespread outrage over the confiscation of cannabis oil from Charlotte Caldwell, who was stopped from bringing it in to the UK for her son Billy, who has acute epilepsy.
The 12-year-old was rushed to hospital on Friday night in a critical condition having suffered multiple seizures. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has since granted Billy a 20-day emergency licence granting use of the oil and he has been discharged from care.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, Lord Hague called for “decisive change” around cannabis laws, saying Billy’s case “provides one of those illuminating moments when a longstanding policy is revealed to be inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date”.
Lord Hague, who was Tory leader between 1997 and 2001, said 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”, but also said the Conservatives should be as “bold” as Canada where state-regulated recreational consumption is being considered.
His comments come after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt conceded “a different way” was needed and fellow Tory Crispin Blunt, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, urged the Home Office to “clear out of the way” and let the Department of Health take control of policy on medical cannabis.
The Government has since announced a new expert panel of clinicians would be established to give swift advice on the prescription of cannabis-based medicines to individual patients.
In a message to his party colleagues, Lord Hague wrote: “We are pragmatists, who change with society and revise our opinions when the facts change. On this issue, the facts have changed very seriously and clearly.”
“As far as marijuana, or cannabis, is concerned, any war has been comprehensively and irreversibly lost,” he added.
Currently, cannabis is a Class B drug, with penalties for possession of up to five years in prison.
Lord Hague said it was “nothing short of deluded” to think the drug could be driven off the streets, and he compared ordering the police to crack down on its use to “asking the army to recover the Empire. This battle is effectively over”.
He said the current situation, where cannabis was both illegal yet widely available, was “the worst of all worlds”.
“The overall result is the rise of a multi-billion pound black market for an unregulated and increasingly potent product, creating more addiction and mental health problems but without any enforceable policy to do something about it,” he added.
“The only beneficiaries are organised crime gangs. It is absolutely unacceptable to allow this situation to continue.”
Lord Hague said under successive governments taking an alternative view on cannabis had been “regarded as indicating a tendency to weird, irresponsible or crazily liberal opinions”, but things had to change.
“It’s time to acknowledge facts, and to embrace a decisive change that would be economically and socially beneficial, as well as rather liberating for Conservatives in showing sensible new opinions are welcome,” he said.
Story continues below poll...
Theresa May has suggested that the Government would look only into the operation of the current system of licences for use of cannabis oil in individual cases, rather than reviewing the law more widely.
Billy was discharged from hospital early on Monday afternoon, but now his mother, from Co Tyrone, wants an urgent review of the law on the substance, which is banned in the UK despite being available in many other countries.
Caldwell, 50, credits cannabis oil with keeping Billy’s seizures at bay, saying he was seizure-free for more than 300 days while using it.
Speaking outside hospital on Monday, she said: “The fact that Billy has been discharged is testimony to the effectiveness of the treatment and underlines how vital it is that every child and every single family affected in our country should have immediate access to the very same medication.”
Hunt had earlier told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think anyone who followed that story could sensibly say that we are getting the law on this kind of thing right.
“I think we all know that we need to find a different way.”
Home Office minister Nick Hurd told the House of Commons on Monday that Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies would take forward the establishment of the expert clinicians’ panel to advise ministers on any individual applications to prescribe cannabis-based medications.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said Labour supports the legal prescription of cannabis oil for medical purposes.
“Children have been put at risk and experienced extraordinary suffering because this Government drags its heels and refuses to grant cannabis oil licences,” she added.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “There is strong scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can harm people’s mental and physical health and can damage communities. The Government is clear – we must prevent drug use in our communities and help those dependent on drugs to recover, while ensuring our drugs laws are enforced.
“The Government has no intention of reviewing the classification of cannabis and it will remain a class B drug. Classification is completely separate to scheduling regulations.
“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.”