Pubdate: Mon, 09 Oct 2000
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Contact:  75 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER, England
Fax: +44-171-837 4530
Author: Patrick Wintour, Chief political correspondent


Ann Widdicombe, the shadow home secretary, was yesterday forced to
backtrack on her pledge for zero tolerance against cannabis users
after seven of her shadow cabinet members mocked the policy by
admitting they had used the drug in their youth.

In an extraordinary day of criticism from some of her most senior Tory
colleagues, Miss Widdicombe admitted that she had erred in presenting
her much maligned pledge to have no truck with drug users.

As what appears to be a battle between social liberals and
authoritarians at the top of the Conservative parry was being waged,
the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy added his fuel to the fire
by becoming the first party leader to call for the decriminalisation
of cannabis possession.

Miss Widdicombe's hand appeared forced as Sunday newspaper headlines
revealed top Tories - including the shadow foreign secretary Francis
Maude - had admitted smoking dope.  She then experienced a very public
revolt within her party to her ideas.

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow culture secretary, said her policy was
"unrealistic" and suggested it was unhelpful that she had launched it
without  discussing it with the shadow cabinet.  The former prime
minister John Major also called for a rethink, while Conservative
vice-chairman Steve Norris said it was a tall order to expect the
police to impose zero tolerance against a backdrop of falling police
numbers.  He also accepted that most young voters would disagree with
Miss Widdicombe.

Yesterday Miss Widdicombe said she intended to give the police the
option of imposing ?100 fixed penalty fines for drugs possession.
Such fines would not constitute a full criminal record accessible to
the police.  She stressed she would pilot her ideas of cracking down
on small or medium drug sellers in one city before attempting anything

Under her proposed regime to deter cannabis users, she said: "The
police could take you to court, as they can now, or they could fine
you, as they cannot now, or they could let you off with a warning that
is not an actual formal caution."

She admitted: "The use of the phrase zero tolerance in this area was
unfortunate because everybody has their own interpretation of what
zero tolerance is.

"I should have made it clear zero tolerance does not mean you come
down on every single instance of possession.  It means you challenge
every instance, but the police have got to have the right to decide
whether they do go forward.  I was trying to ensure that where they
did want to go forward, they have more teeth than now."

She wanted to replace the caution for drugs possession with the fine
because the caution represents no real deferent and few police wanted
to pursue possession though cumbersome court procedure.

She said: "It is a coherent policy that has come under such enormous
pressure because the media interpreted it as the police invading
private living quarters, raiding student premises and taking every

She said one of her most severe critics - the Police Superintendent's
Association - had "got completely the wrong end of the stick.  They
thought they would have to do it on present resources, and secondly
they thought it would remove all discretion."

She also stressed theta fixed penalty fine would not represent a more
serious criminal record than a police caution.  It would not be a
record for use by employers.

She admitted the Conservative central office briefing paper
accompanying her speech stating the fixed penalty fine would not
constitute a criminal record was technically correct, but "it would
have been more accurate if it added that the record would not show in
most checks in exactly the same way as a police caution.  I am not
introducing something that does not happen at the moment."

Charles Kennedy, speaking on ITVs Jonathan Dimbleby programme, accused
her of political hysterics, adding "she has performed a public service
in the past few days by showing how far public attitudes have changed."

He did not regards the shadow cabinet members of other recreational
users as criminals.  Asked if this meant he believed the drug should
be decriminalised, he answered: "Yes."

But the Liberal Democrat manifesto would not pledge to end the outlaw
status of cannabis.  Instead, it will propose a royal commission to
look into drug law reforms. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake