A LEADING Scottish drugs researcher has claimed that cannabis could be as big a danger to society as cocaine and heroin.

In a comment piece written for the Sunday Herald, Professor Neil McKeganey, of the Centre for Drugs Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow, warns that the government and drugs workers should put the focus back on cannabis to solve the problem of illegal drug use in Scotland.

McKeganey argues that the threat of cannabis is not so much its health risk to the individual, but that it creates a climate in which the use of harder drugs could become increasingly socially acceptable.

He writes: "It is possible that the perception that it is OK to use illegal drugs if they are not seen to cause much harm to the vast majority of users, is a judgement which has been assisted by the perception of cannabis as a harm-free recreational drug.

"If this is the case then cannabis - at a societal level, if not at the level of the individual - is just as dangerous as heroin and cocaine." He calls this the "societal gateway" theory.

But McKeganey's comments drew angry reactions from Scotland's drugs workers. David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum said:

"Research has overwhelmingly shown that poverty and deprivation - not cannabis - is more likely to be the gateway into problematic drug use.

"People who develop serious drug problems do so by using any type of drug, irrespective of what it is. Cannabis per se is not the issue - people's personal and social difficulties are.

"The nut which society really needs to crack is the underlying issues which cause people to turn to drugs as an escape route in the first place."

Dr David Shewan of Caledonian University, coauthor of a recent controversial report which showed that heroin use did not always lead to negative health or social problems, agreed.

He said: "There are health concerns in relation to the high strength of some cannabis available now, particularly when smoked by young users, and people with existing mental health problems.

"But I am not convinced that dealing with these health issues would be helped by what Professor McKeganey appears to be arguing for, a 'war on cannabis'.

"Making cannabis use primarily a criminal justice issue would undermine a more constructive focus on these health needs.

"It would distract attention from more intrusive issues of crime and underpinning problems of socioeconomic deprivation.

"If the concept of the societal gateway is accepted, then the drug that most obviously serves this function is alcohol."

Kenny MacAskill, justice spokesman for the SNP, agreed that alcohol had to be considered when addressing drug use.

"There is no easy answer to the drug problems in our society, and that includes alcohol, " he said. "I am not for greater liberalisation, but I am certain that greater repression is not working either.

"We need to find a solution though, because repression and retribution on their own have not worked and will not work. It requires education, a cultural change and, to some extent, people to believe in themselves and have some hope rather than a nihilistic, escapist perspective."

Alistair Ramsey, director of Scotland Against Drugs, said while he doesn't wholly agree with McKeganey's theories, the debate into cannabis, which he believes has been stuck for 20 or 30 years, needs to be refreshed.

"This is an interesting proposition, but we can't ignore the fact that cannabis can and does cause for some people significant health problems, both mental and physical, " he said.

It is estimated that 3.5 million people in the UK use cannabis.

In January 2004, the Scottish Executive reclassified the drug from Class B to Class C status.

But a spokesman for the Executive said that reclassification is not the same as legalisation.

He explained: "It simply recognises that while all drugs are harmful, some drugs are more harmful than others.

Cannabis carries risks but it is not as dangerous as, say, heroin and cocaine. But dabbling in it could well leave you with a criminal record, as well as damaging your health.

"The Executive does not condone the use of cannabis.

It is illegal and carries serious risk to both physical health and mental health. We also know that sustained use can create dependence - around 10-per cent of people reporting to drug services say that cannabis is their main problem drug."

Earlier last week, countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Iran rallied at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs to persuade the UN to reject a zero-tolerance approach in international drug policy.

Their appeal was vetoed by the US. The UK delegation stayed silent on the issue.