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The BBC's June Kelly
"Seven Tories have now undermined the Widdecombe strategy"
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Peter Ainsworth, Shadow Culture spokesman
"I've clearly made a mistake quarter of a century ago"
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Sunday, 8 October, 2000, 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK
Tory admission sparks dope debate
Joint rolling
Not all Tories support the zero tolerance approach
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis after seven senior Tories admit having smoked the drug.

The revelations come four days after shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe unveiled the party's "zero tolerance" stance, including plans for an automatic fine for cannabis users.

Shadow culture secretary Peter Ainsworth, one of the seven named Tories, told the BBC the "zero tolerance" policy needed to be reviewed after seven members of the shadow cabinet admitted taking cannabis in their youth.

Owning up to cannabis
Peter Ainsworth,
Francis Maude,
Lord Strathclyde
Bernard Jenkin
David Willets
Archie Norman
Oliver Letwin
He said "The policy needs to be looked at again, it needs to be discussed".

Shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude and Lords leader Lord Strathclyde were also among those who have admitted using the illegal drug.

Tory leader William Hague and Miss Widdecombe were among nine frontbenchers who denied ever having experimented with illegal drugs, when asked by the Mail on Sunday.

A further three, including shadow chancellor Michael Portillo, declined to answer. Two others could not be contacted.

Mr Kennedy seized on Tory embarrassment about the revelations and said he was personally in favour of cannabis being decriminalised.

He said he wanted a Royal Commission to tackle the issue, and said recreational cannabis use should be a "civil offence".

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy: Personally favours decriminalisation
Asked on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby's programme why he would not call for decriminalisation in his party's manifesto, Mr Kennedy said: "It would be inconsistent for me and the Liberal Democrats to be arguing for a Royal Commission and then to prejudge it."

He added: "You asked me for a personal opinion and I gave you a personal opinion, but I would like to see an authoritative all-party, non-party look at the issue, rather than the hysterics of the past few days."

Mr Ainsworth told BBC Radio 4: "We wish to send a very clear message that drugs are wrong.

"The fact is, in my opinion, nobody is going to die of cannabis and I think it is unrealistic to expect people not to come across it.

"I came across it, I never owned it, I never bought it but I was in places where it was going around, so very, very, occasionally I had a puff."

But Mr Ainsworth said his experience was "worlds apart from serious drugs, drug dealing, selling drugs to children where we take a very hard line and rightly so".

Shadow culture secretary Peter Ainsworth
Peter Ainsworth:"No-one is going to die of cannabis"
Official party sources have refused to comment on the disclosures, but veteran backbencher Sir Teddy Taylor said the seven should be sacked.

The other frontbenchers who admitted trying cannabis were shadow transport minister Bernard Jenkin, shadow social security secretary David Willetts, shadow environment secretary Archie Norman and shadow chief secretary to the treasury Oliver Letwin.

The Mail on Sunday said it was approached by "senior Tories", who said that the shadow cabinet members were so furious about Miss Widdecombe's initiative that they were ready to admit their youthful indiscretions.

But Miss Widdecombe was defiant when told of the admissions.

She said: "I am not interested in the past. I am only interested in the measures we need for the future."

They are normal human beings and they weren't brought up in monasteries.

Paul Flynn MP
Labour backbencher Paul Flynn, who has long campaigned for the decriminalisation of cannabis, called for other MPs to be more honest.

He said: "I welcome the shadow cabinet members' comments.

"They are normal human beings and they weren't brought up in monasteries. They shared the experiences of their generation and one would expect that to be the case.

"Politicians, including the Labour leadership, ought to start telling the truth on this issue."

The Legalise Cannabis Campaign said "European harmonisation" meant that the drug was "bound" to be decriminalised."

Spokeswoman Linda Hendry said: "It is good to have politicians talking about having used drugs because they are really the last bastion of people who are against change."

In her conference speech last Wednesday, Miss Widdecombe said she would introduce a fixed penalty of 100 for a first offence of possessing drugs - no matter how small the quantity.

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See also:

08 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Tory drug confessors join growing club
08 Oct 00 | Scotland
Rifkind defends 'dope-smoking' MPs
05 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Tory drugs row continues
05 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Widdecombe stands by drugs policy
04 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Tories get tough on drugs
24 Jan 00 | UK Politics
Senior Lib Dem tried cannabis
16 Jan 00 | UK Politics
I smoked cannabis, admits Mowlam
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