Class C war: A minister's son, a couple of joints and a campus up in arms over case of cannabis 'double standards'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Students caught smoking cannabis: an everyday occurrence, you might think. Hardly a story that would generate much interest in the local press, never mind in national newspapers.

Yet this story has some twists. Two students have been caught with the drug. One is the son of a minister who advises the Government on the administration of the law and a trade union leader with links to Tony Blair. The other student has no such connections in the corridors of power.

The university has a tough "one strike and you're out" policy on anyone found with drugs in the halls of residence.

The first student is the son of Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, and Jack Dromey, the deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He is banned from university accommodation, but then allowed back.

The other student is banned from university accommodation and kept out. He sleeps on friends' floors, then he finds a flat miles from campus. Then, when he is trying to find his way back to his flat he is hit by a train and killed.

The student paper accuses the university of "double standards". The university hits back, suggesting the students are being sensationalist. And so a high-achieving university descends into controversy, and the arguments rage about what should happen to students caught with cannabis. This is the situation at Warwick University this weekend.

The story began in the autumn when Joe Dromey, a first-year history and politics undergraduate, was caught with cannabis in his room on his second day at the university. Mr Dromey, aged 19, was immediately told he would have to leave his digs. Ms Harman avoided personally representing her son at the ensuing appeal, for fear of being accused of putting undue pressure on the university.

One of her colleagues, Jack Straw, took a similarly circumspect attitude when his son, William, was cautioned by police after he tried to sell cannabis to an undercover tabloid reporter. The appeal of Ms Harman's son was successful and he was allowed back on campus, although at the least desirable hall of residence, Cryfields, which is dubbed the "Gulag". He has since had to move again, after tabloid journalists found his address.

Ben Holloway, the other student, was found with cannabis in his room towards the end of his first term at the university. According to fellow students, the engineering student was caught with cannabis at a party in Whitefields, his hall of residence, which resulted in another student being expelled for possessing a substantial amount of the drug.

Mr Holloway was forced to leave the hall of residence and find a flat. He was not thought to have appealed against his eviction.

One night, several weeks later, when he was returning home from a night out drinking with friends, he wandered on to the railway track. An inquest into his death has been opened and adjourned. His funeral will be held on Monday.

While the university is refusing to make any public comment about either case, it points out that it believes its appeals system is fair and open to every student. A source said: "Parental background would not be considered as a ground for a successful appeal."

One senior academic pointed out that it might have helped Mr Dromey's case that he was only in his second day at the university and was therefore given a second chance.

Despite that, Bob Jones, the president of Warwick University's student union, said he had raised the issue "informally" with the university authorities "because of this issue of double standards". He said: "The policy is usually that you always get thrown out.

"But then there was this appeal and it was seen that he should not be thrown out. I did not ask the exact details of this appeal."

In the students' union ­ where drugs on campus was an issue in elections taking place yesterday, with some candidates calling for a "three strikes and you're out" policy ­ the contrast between the treatment of the two undergraduates was a talking point.

Chris Welford, a third-year engineering student, said: "You can't directly blame the university for what happened on that railway line. But what you have here is two different stories: one bloke with friends in high places and who is not treated too badly and another who is apparently an ordinary guy."

William Johnson, the editor of the Warwick Boar, the student newspaper, said Ms Harman's son had been granted "leniency" by officials. He said: "We have been concerned about double standards. We feel the university's zero-tolerance eviction policy is unfair."

The newspaper has tried in recent days to steer the controversy away from the "double standards" issue and move it towards the university's overall policy on drugs.

Senior university staff, who have dismissed claims of hypocrisy as "twaddle", believe it was a bit rich of the newspaper to argue that it was more interested in the overall policy after a headline which read: "Government minister's son is caught smoking cannabis and stays in campus halls whilst residents mourn the loss of a friend forced to live alone in Coventry for the same offence." They argue that the students could and should have published the story without reference to Mr Dromey.

But the student newspaper argues that the university's hardline stance should be changed in an era when cannabis possession has been downgraded to class C by the Government. "In our age group there is a lot of pressure to try drugs and it can be more detrimental to a student's welfare to evict them from their accommodation than to have any incidents dealt with by the police," Mr Johnson said.

Yesterday, one student on the campus was clear about what lessons should be learnt from Mr Holloway's case. Dave Reynolds said: "It's not perhaps the fact that he was kicked out because he broke the rules. The real shame is that he was kicked out without any support afterwards."