Pubdate: Tue, 10 Oct 2000
Source: Belfast Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Belfast Telegraph Newspapers Ltd.


THE Conservatives faced fresh embarrassment over their drugs policy today
after an eighth shadow Cabinet minister reportedly admitted using cannabis -
and said he enjoyed it.

Tory Agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo's reported comments came after leader
William Hague spent yesterday attempting a dignified retreat from the
party's hardline zero-tolerance policy on cannabis.

Less than a week after toasting Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe's plans
for pounds 100 fines for possessing even the smallest amount of cannabis, Mr
Hague admitted "concerns" about the policy and said further consultation was

And Mr Yeo apparently added to the disarray after becoming the first senior
politician of any party to say he had enjoyed the drug.

He could not be reached at his London home last night, but The Times quoted
Mr Yeo saying he had used cannabis infrequently "a long way in the past".

"I was offered it on occasion and enjoyed it. I think it can be a much
pleasanter experience than having too much to drink," he reportedly said.

His comments followed similar confessions from Francis Maude, Archie Norman
and five other shadow ministers and Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP sitting on
the Home Affairs select committee over the weekend.

But unlike them, Mr Yeo told The Times: "I don't share the view that it was
disagreeable. I found it agreeable."

And Mr Hague will see former deputy leader Peter Lilley break ranks over the
issue when he publishes a pamphlet arguing for legalisation in direct
opposition to party policy, The Times predicted.

The Tory leader publicly backed shadow Cabinet colleagues for coming clean
over their youthful experimentation as he appeared to back-pedal over Miss
Widdecombe's plans.

"The proposals we have made are on the table but they need further
consultation, discussion and debate," Mr Hague said.

As well as being seen as a U-turn for the Tories, the policy amendment is a
bitter blow to Miss Widdecombe.

Her plans had been criticised by police, drugs tsar Keith Hellawell and
senior figures from within her own party before the seven Conservative
frontbenchers admitted taking cannabis when students.

Mr Hague said he had authorised the frontbenchers to answer questions about
their drug use honestly and said he would have been "appalled if they had
done anything else".

But he insisted he still had faith in his senior home affairs spokeswoman,
saying: "I have 150% confidence in Ann Widdecombe - she will be a great
crime fighting Home Secretary."

The Tories' rivals seized on their disarray with Labour saying the
Conservatives had gone from "zero tolerance to zero credibility".

Home Office Minister Paul Boateng said: "William Hague says he is backing
Widdecombe 150% while at the same time he is trying to ditch the policy.

"His opportunism and weakness in the face of a shadow cabinet revolt is
clear to see."

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: "This fiasco exemplifies just
how out of touch William Hague's Conservative Party is with Britain today.

"How can William Hague have 150% confidence in his Shadow Home Secretary Ann
Widdecombe when she does not enjoy that confidence from within the shadow
cabinet nor the police."

However, the row highlighted the debate on drugs policy and renewed calls
for decriminalisation of cannabis.

Former Chief Constable of Gwent Francis Wilkinson argued that cannabis was
less damaging to society than tobacco or alcohol in a pamphlet published
today entitled The Leaf and the Law.

He said: "There is an enormous illegal industry growing fat on the
prohibition of a drug that is less harmful than either alcohol or tobacco."
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