Make mine a stiff spliff ...

Ros Wynne-Jones visits the pub where a Cabinet Minister's son sealed a cannabis deal
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The Independent Online
In One of London's most ordinary middle-class pubs last night, people of all ages were celebrating the twilight time between Christmas and New Year. They sat at neat tables, chatted with bar staff and joked about escaping their in-laws.

Most people in the pub would not have known that the friendly, warmly- lit premises were the subject of a police investigation which cuts to the heart of government. For it was here, not in some dingy den of vice, that the now infamous Cabinet Minister's son made the mistake of buying cannabis for an attractive young woman who turned out to be a tabloid reporter.

One can only imagine what Christmas must have been like at the senior minister's house. As the Government tried, in the face of increasing pressure from backbenchers and campaigners, to hold its tough line on not decriminalising cannabis, the 17-year-old - who cannot be named for legal reasons - had laid bare the near-impossibility of toeing that particular line, simply by acting like a typical sixth-former.

The minister's son now faces a charge for supplying drugs. What he is actually guilty of is knowing where to buy cannabis resin, an easily-available drug which is non-addictive, and selling a small amount, 1.92 grams, to someone looking for it.

"People are making out the guy is some sort of big-time drugs criminal," says Ben, 21, who regularly buys cannabis in the same neighbourhood as the minister's son. "It doesn't work like that at all. What usually happens is that people who buy cannabis get some in for their friends and then sell it on for no profit. They buy from a small-time guy who just deals a bit of dope. The bigger dealers are way up the network."

To buy the Class B drug in the 1990s, says Ben, there is no need to go to a "dodgy pub up a back alley... In most pubs in bigger cities it is easily available."

The story, which led to the formal arrest of the 17-year-old on Tuesday, began with a tip-off to the Mirror that he was dealing cannabis at a pub. Two female reporters then went to the pub on a Saturday night. They got chatting to the minister's son, shared a few drinks and then the talk turned to drugs. They talked about festivals and raves, gossiped about coke-sniffing celebrities and discussed the merits of cannabis leaves (grass) and resin. The son then said a friend had some cannabis to sell and he would "see what [he] could do".

"Ten minutes later," according to reports in the Mirror, "the politician's son returned, tapped [the reporter] on the shoulder and asked her to go outside with him. Then, opposite a magistrates' court and near a police station, he offered her a clear plastic bag, saying it contained 'good, strong hash' and took pounds 10 for it."

The Mirror contacted the Labour minister, an awkward phone call bearing in mind the traditional loyalties of the newspaper, and the politician decided to take his son to the police station, where he was arrested. The son has since had to name the dealer from whom he bought the cannabis, and his friends have been questioned by police. As well as the formal police charges and the possibility of expulsion from school, like other 17-year-olds who have misbehaved, he has been grounded.

The Mirror has handed over the "good, strong hash" and the reporter is to give a statement to police tomorrow. The Prime Minister has said there is no question of the minister being asked to resign, although some backbenchers have said that if the son is treated any differently from any other 17- year-old, the minister's position will become untenable.

Police have been told to tie up the investigation "as soon as is humanly possible" and the Crown Prosecution Service should decide early next week between a caution and a charge, which would result in court proceedings.

Fortunately for the family concerned, because he is under the age of 18 he cannot be named - unlike Lord Steel's son, Graeme, who was freed from a jail sentence for growing cannabis in 1996.

In the wake of the arrest of the Minister's son, Lord Steel added his voice to the growing call for a debate on the decriminalisation of cannabis. "It will be a rude shock to the Minister, and colleagues should rethink the policy," he said. "There's a good case for an independent inquiry."