Pubdate: Sun,  8 Oct 2000
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Contact:  PO Box 496, London E1 9XW, United Kingdom
Fax: +44-(0)20-782 5658
Authors: Michael Prescott and Eben Black


A QUARTER of William Hague's shadow cabinet last night admitted to
having smoked cannabis, reigniting the debate over Tory policy on soft
drugs, write Michael Prescott and Eben Black.

The five senior Conservatives who confessed to breaking the law all
said they had tried cannabis in their student days and denied dabbling
with the drug since.

Privately, many expressed fury with Ann Widdecombe, the shadow home
secretary. They said it was her new policy of =A3100 fines for anyone
with even small amounts of cannabis that had prompted media inquiries
about their student habits.

Those who admitted to trying cannabis were Francis Maude, shadow
foreign secretary; Archie Norman, shadow environment and transport
secretary; Peter Ainsworth, shadow culture secretary; David Willetts,
shadow social security secretary; and Oliver Letwin, shadow Treasury

Letwin said he had tried the drug only by accident while at Cambridge
University, because friends mixed some cannabis in with his pipe
tobacco. "I was extremely cross about it," Letwin said last night.

The disclosures come after Widdecombe caused trouble at last week's
Tory conference in Bournemouth by announcing her new policy of "zero
tolerance" towards even soft drugs. As well as proposing =A3100 fines
for cannabis users, she also said that anyone caught with the smallest
amount of the drug should get a criminal record.

This appalled her shadow cabinet colleagues, many of whom now admit to
having tried the drug while students. They protested that she had not
consulted them about her policy and opposed it on the grounds that it
would criminalise sections of the student population and other young
people whose votes the Tories want to court.

Widdecombe was forced to issue a "clarification" late last week,
saying that the criminal record she proposed for cannabis users would
be no worse than the existing police caution and would not affect
people's job or travel prospects.

Apart from this "clarification", Widdecombe insists her policy stands.
Many of the shadow cabinet's 21 members intend to challenge her
stance, however.

Hague was abroad last night but must confront what one colleague last
night described as "a total mess" when he returns to Britain shortly.

It is not known whether Hague asked his shadow cabinet members whether
they had any "skeletons in the cupboard" when he appointed them. But
many of them admitted to this newspaper yesterday that they had broken
the law as students.

Asked whether he had ever smoked cannabis, Ainsworth replied: "Yes. A
long time ago, and not habitually. I never bought my own. It was only
occasionally at parties when I was at university. It was very

He added: "I would strongly recommend against it. I did not enjoy it.
It was casually at parties. Cannabis was around. It is best to be honest."

Willetts said: "I was offered cannabis and I did smoke it once. I have
never touched it since. It was a party at Oxford."

Norman, formerly head of the Asda supermarket chain, also confessed to
dabbling as a student. "The answer is yes," he said. "It was not
regularly. This was some 30 years ago, maybe 25 years ago, during the
days of the Vietnam war. I have got nothing more to add."

Maude admitted trying cannabis "a few times" while he was a student at
Cambridge from 1972-76. "This isn't a big story - it was when I was a
student 25 years or so ago," the MP for Horsham said.

He refused to be drawn further, but friends said he was "furious" with

"Francis is being asked about his student past and he is an honest man
so he told the truth - but he's not best pleased with Widdecombe,"
said one.

Two other members of the shadow cabinet were said last night to have
smoked cannabis while young. Neither could be contacted for comment.
Others denied having smoked cannabis when asked at last week's
conference in Bournemouth, but blamed Widdecombe for the fact that
they were being pestered about the matter.

Those who said - either directly or via their aides - that they never
had contact with the drug included Widdecombe; Michael Portillo, the
shadow chancellor; Iain Duncan Smith, shadow defence secretary; Liam
Fox, shadow health secretary; and Steven Norris, the Tory

Lord Alli, the Labour peer and an executive with Carlton, admitted
this weekend to having smoked cannabis "once or twice", but said it
disagreed with him. He called for cannabis to be legalised and said a
cross-party group should be set up to press for the move.

Alan Duncan, a shadow minister and a close friend of Hague's, called
in his book Saturn's Children for the legalisation of all drugs. He
was forced by Hague to drop the chapter from the paperback edition
after he was appointed shadow health minister in 1998.
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