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Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
A rolling argument: Cannabis and the establishment

Ann Widdecombe is sticking by her plans to criminalise all cannabis users. But, as the response of the Tory press shows, dope smoking goes to the heart of the establishment.

The champagne flowed and representatives rose to their feet to applaud Ann Widdecombe's barnstorming speech to the Conservative conference on Wednesday.

The thrust of her message was a toughening up of law and order, and that meant zero tolerance towards drugs.

Ann Widdecombe
Drink but no drugs, Ann Widdecombe salutes the crowd
But in the wider world, her plan to slap a 100 fine on anyone caught with cannabis did not go down at all well.

Most damaging for the shadow home secretary was the reaction of the Tory press.

The Daily Telegraph said the plans lacked common sense, while The Sun, which has edged backed to the Tories of late, headlined the story: "Ann makes a hash of plans to fight drugs."

Even The Daily Mail sounded a note of disapproval. Writing in the paper, young Tory Edward Heathcoat Amory said he had been "unable to find anyone under the age of 40, even here among the serried blue ranks by the sea, who thinks that this is a good idea".

Perhaps the most withering analysis for Miss Widdecombe is that she is out of touch - a charge William Hague has increasingly levelled against the Labour government, which incidentally, also has a hardline on drugs.

Cannabis plant and Big Ben
Leaf it out: Legalising drugs is not on the government's priority list
Unlike heroin or cocaine use, or even drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour, it seems there is little appetite for strong-arm tactics against cannabis users.

In fact, dope smokers can invariably be found at the heart of the establishment.

Witness the comments of Cara Cuthbertson, a student representative at the Conservative conference.

Miss Cuthbertson said she smoked dope regularly, with the approval of her Tory-voting parents, who themselves used to smoke it.

Drugs or drink?

"They'd rather I had a few joints than got drunk. Drinking makes people violent and is a real social problem," she said.

A Mori survey last year gets to the nub of the debate.

Lord Cranborne
Decriminalise it! Lord Cranborne rejected his party's plans
The poll, conducted for the Police Federation, found almost half of respondents - 48% - said cannabis should be legalised. Thirty-six percent were against such a move.

Sixty-one percent considered cannabis not very or not at all harmful, and 54% thought cannabis users should be the lowest priority for the police.

Among supporters of a more relaxed drugs policy is Lord Cranborne, the former Tory leader in the House of Lords. He backs decriminalisation of cannabis and said Miss Widdecombe's plans would make an "ass of the law".

Bush telegraph

The attitude of the establishment hasn't always been like this. One of the most significant shifts came earlier this year, in response to an independent investigation by the Police Foundation into Britain's 30-year-old anti-drugs laws.

The report, issued in March, concluded penalties for possession of illegal drugs should be reduced.

William Straw
Home Secretary Jack Straw is tough on drugs, but son William was caught for supplying
In response, The Daily Telegraph's editor, Charles Moore, called for soft drugs to be legalised.

"People like substances that alter their mood, and only strict puritans believe that they should never use any of them," read the paper's editorial.

"A cup of coffee, a glass of wine or beer, or even the odd cigarette are among the legitimate pleasures of life. Are drugs fundamentally different?"

The paper's editorial called on the government to "draw up plans to legalise cannabis - generally accepted as the least dangerous of the drugs that are widely used - both for its consumption and for its supply."

The Daily Mail also sounded a more liberal tone, saying "the arguments on both sides merit hysteria-free and rational examination".

Judging by the reaction to Miss Widdecombe's speech, that may well now be the attitude of William Hague's shadow cabinet.

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See also:

05 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Widdecombe stands by drugs policy
05 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Tory drugs row continues
09 Jun 00 | Wales
Cannabis bill blocked
02 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Straw attacked over drug stance
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