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Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 12:29 GMT
Drugs debate stays behind cabinet doors

Demands to legalise cannabis have been rebuffed by ministers


By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Tony Blair may have been in a rock group at college - but it's a dead cert he did not indulge in the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll lifestyle.

None of his contemporaries has ever even suggested he took drugs and the image of a youthful Blair with a joint stuck in his mouth just doesn't work.

His minister for drugs, Mo Mowlam, however, readily admits she is a child of the sixties who was pretty "wild" and did indeed smoke cannabis. Unlike President Bill Clinton, she admits she did inhale.

She didn't much like it, of course, and it never became part of her life.

Mo Mowlam: Smoked and inhaled
But while a fresh debate over changes in anti-drugs laws is raging, no other cabinet minister has even gone this far.

Before the election, Home Office minister Charles Clarke admitted smoking cannabis "a couple of times in my late teens".

Labour MPs Clare Short, Tony Banks and Paul Flynn have all, at one time or another, suggested the issue of decriminalisation of cannabis should be addressed.

And a couple of years ago Ms Short, now International Development secretary, caused her colleagues dismay when she suggested some of them had tried cannabis.

When asked if she had ever smoked the drug herself she refused to say, declaring that would lead to every frontbencher being asked the same question - and some of them would have to lie.

No-go area

Her comments undoubtedly reflected the truth of the matter. It is highly unlikely that Dr Mowlam is the only cabinet minister who tried cannabis, but under New Labour this is a no-go area.

Despite what is said on the record, Tony Blair was not at all happy with Dr Mowlam's confession.

Jack Straw: Hippy culture passed him by
Home Secretary Jack Straw - whose son was recently cautioned for dealing drugs - was equally displeased.

They praised the minister for her openness, but the last thing this government wants is to open up a debate about the possible legalisation of cannabis.

They were equally disturbed when drugs czar Keith Hellawell suggested the police should concentrate their efforts less on cannabis and more on the more dangerous drugs.

So the debate is only going on behind the closed doors of the cabinet, which is clearly split on the issue.

In the lead against any change are the prime minister and Mr Straw. The home secretary may have been elected leader of the National Union of Students in 1969, but the whole hippy culture appears to have passed him by.

Now he is as implacably opposed to any relaxing of drugs laws as it is possible to be.

New approach

But there are voices calling for a new approach and Blair and Straw are determined to keep them quiet.

No minister has gone on the record to suggest that cannabis should be decriminalised, but there is a growing body of opinion supporting that view, including some senior police officers.

What Labour fears, probably rightly, is that opening this particular can of worms would hand the Tories a massive propaganda weapon in the run up to the next election.

So between now and polling day the only debate there is likely to be about drugs will be on new measures to stop people taking them.

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See also:
16 Feb 00 |  UK
Hellawell: Drugs blitz working already
05 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Hellawell: Ease off on cannabis

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