Blair says marijuana should remain illegal

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Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped gingerly into Britain's latest debate over marijuana, saying the drug should remain illegal.

Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped gingerly into Britain's latest debate over marijuana, saying the drug should remain illegal.

But the prime minister, who was speaking to the BBC, was careful not to criticise politicians from the opposition Conservative Party who admitted last week that they had smoked the drug in their younger years.

"I think what is important is not what happened on some university campus years ago in respect of particular ministers or particular opposition spokesmen," Mr Blair said from the coastal French resort of Biarritz where he is attending a European Union summit.

"What is important is making sure we fight organised crime and the drugs trade, which is exactly what we are doing," he said.

The Conservative Party inadvertently sparked a debate over marijuana after Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe announced a "zero tolerance" policy toward the drug at the party's annual conference two weeks ago - a moved aimed to underline the Conservative's law-and-order stance.

Under Tory plans, someone caught possessing any amount of marijuana would face a mandatory £100 fine for a first offence.

Senior Tories immediately rounded on the hardline position, with seven admitting that they had once smoked the drug. Police officials described the policy as unworkable.

The debate forced Tory party leader William Hague into a retreat. He said the policy would be reconsidered in consultation with police and other experts.

The Labour Party has largely stayed out of the debate, with most ministers refusing to comment on whether they ever experimented with marijuana.

But on Friday, Yvette Cooper, the minister for public health, became the first government minister since the debate was reignited to admit smoking the drug. Last year, the party's popular Cabinet Minster Mo Mowlam admitted trying the drug as a student in the early 70s.

"I did try cannabis while at university, like a lot of students at that time, and it is something that I have left, you know, behind and it was several years ago," Cooper told the BBC.

Blair told the BBC that he believed Britons were more interested in government efforts to stop the spread of drugs than in which politicians have or have not smoked marijuana. He said that his government remained committed to fighting drugs, adding that he thought decriminalising marijuana would harm police efforts to tackle other drugs.

But Blair denied that his party had ordered government ministers not to add to the latest round of political confessions by revealing any youthful experience with marijuana.

"It is up to people to do what they want to do but I think it is important that we concentrate on the issue which I think will be of much greater interest to the public," Blair said.