Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jan 2004
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Authors: David Cracknell, Maurice Chittenden, Rachel Dobson, Dipesh Gadher and
Steven Shukor


A PURPLE haze descended on Downing Street yesterday over the topical 
question of which cabinet ministers have smoked cannabis.

Charles Clarke, the education secretary, has admitted that he tried the 
drug "a couple of times in my late teens". Peter Hain, leader of the 
Commons and Welsh secretary, has described how someone once tried to put "a 
cannabis spliff or whatever you call them into my mouth, angry that I 
wasn't smoking it". He did not inhale.

But what sent alarm bells ringing at No 10 this weekend was not these past 
revelations but a seemingly innocuous remark from Gordon Brown, the 
chancellor, that he had never tried the drug.

According to Westminster insiders, John Prescott, the deputy prime 
minister, "went ballistic", arguing that such a reply would oblige other 
ministers, including Tony Blair, to give a definite answer.

A message was sent around Whitehall offices telling ministers to give the 
same answer: "We never respond to surveys."

The reclassification of cannabis -- from Class B to the less serious Class 
C category -- comes into force on Thursday.The change has triggered an 
obvious question from political journalists: which politicians have ever 
dabbled with dope? Downing Street was thrown into a blue funk about what 
Blair did in his student days when he wore purple loons and did Mick Jagger 
impressions while fronting a rock band called Ugly Rumours.

Blair's spokesman said: "We don't respond to surveys. In terms of him, you 
mean? I am not aware that he has ever commented." There were plenty of 
drugs in Oxford when Blair was there in the early 1970s. But unlike Bill 
Clinton, an earlier student, Blair has insisted that not only did he never 
inhale, but he never put a spliff to his lips.

He told his biographer Jon Sopel in 1995: "The only thing my father really 
drummed into me was never to take drugs . . . and, anyway, I was doing so 
many other things that I never needed to."

A year earlier he joked that he had never smoked dope -- "but if I had, you 
can be sure I would have inhaled".

The same temptation hung in the air at Edinburgh University when Brown was 
the long-haired student rector there in the early 1970s. But his decision 
to give a definite answer only clouded the issue.

Prescott was insistent that no minister should answer. "We don't respond to 
surveys. That's the official response," said his spokesman.

Of the 21 members of the cabinet who were approached yesterday, more than 
half gave the same stock response, word for word. Ministers who did commit 
themselves emphasised that they were already on the record and had not 
commented afresh.

Brown, who was accused by some party insiders of having put Blair on the 
spot, whether deliberately or unwittingly, said that he had answered the 
question before. But his spokesman said: "With any question being put to 
all cabinet ministers, all we will say is that we do not respond to 
surveys. If you asked if a minister had cheese on toast last night, you 
would get the same response."

A spokesman for Hain said: "Everybody has been told to say that we do not 
respond to surveys."

Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary who is a former 
flatmate of Blair's, said: "I don't respond to those sort of questions."

Alistair Darling, the transport and Scottish secretary, said: "Mind your 
own business".

Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman and minister without portfolio, was one 
of only two cabinet members prepared to risk Prescott's wrath. "I have 
never smoked any substance, legal or illegal," he said.

Hilary Armstrong, Labour's chief whip, said: "I've never smoked a cigarette 
in my life so you can just about imagine what I've ever done with cannabis."

Away from the cabinet, the Home Office minister Caroline Flint, who has the 
job of defending the new soft line on cannabis, has confessed to smoking 
the drug while a student. She gave up because "I didn't like the scene 
around it" she says in an interview with The Sunday Times today.

Prescott is believed to be privately unhappy about the downgrading of 
cannabis. "I have seen what it does both in my 10 years at sea and on the 
estates in my constituency," he has said. "I am not very tolerant of that."
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