Police reject plan of £100 fines for possessing drugs

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William Hague was forced to defend Tory policy to impose an automatic £100 fine on anyone caught in possession of cannabis yesterday after the proposal ran into heavy criticism from police chiefs.

William Hague was forced to defend Tory policy to impose an automatic £100 fine on anyone caught in possession of cannabis yesterday after the proposal ran into heavy criticism from police chiefs.

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, won a standing ovation at the conference for her proposals to allow police to blood-test anyone suspected of taking or possessing soft drugs.

Miss Widdecombe announced a "zero tolerance" approach to drug use as she pledged to impose fixed penalty notices on anyone found in possession of an illegal drug, no matter how small the amount.

But within minutes of her remarks, the Police Superintendents' Association made clear that it would oppose the plans because they flew in the face of current practice of cautioning for such offences.

Peter Williams, national secretary of the association, said officers did not want to punish people for simple possession. "We would not support this proposal," Mr Williams said.

"The reason for this is that the policy is not to punish people for possession of drugs but to try and divert them from drugs. We support the present national strategy involving drug action teams, which have a very positive effect."

Mr Hague defended the policy last night, claiming that it was "absolutely essential" to "take the fight against drugs further down the chain" from dealer to user. "At the moment, efforts that have been made to fight the drugs menace have been ineffective so are we going to surrender or are we going to intensify the battle? I think we ought to intensify the battle," he told Channel 4 News.

However, senior party sources confirmed that they had been unaware of the details of Miss Widdecombe's plans until her speech. "She clearly hadn't thought it through properly," said one. Another Shadow Cabinet member said the policy appeared "half baked".

Lord Cranborne, the former Conservative leader in the House of Lords, went even further when he said that cannabis should be decriminalised because the law was "an ass" at present.

"I don't like the idea of people using drugs which at present are illegal any more than Ann Widdecombe does, but I do thinkyou play into the hands of criminals if you make the law into an ass when nobody wants to obey the law and indeed regard breaking the law a bit of a challenge," he told the BBC's Conference Live programme.

Miss Widdecombe outlined her drugs policy in her set-piece law and order speech to the conference.

She pledged "no quarter" for those who traded in the misery, despair and death brought by drugs and "no hiding place" for those caught in possession of even a minimal amount of cannabis. "It means zero tolerance of possession," insisted Miss Widdecombe. "No more getting away with just a caution, no more hoping that a blind eye will be turned."

Conservative officials said that the plans would mean people caught with a single cannabis cigarette, or traces of cannabis in their bloodstream, would be given a fixed penalty fine and a criminal record for a first offence. Tougher punishments would be introduced for subsequent offences.

The latest figures published in the British Crime Survey show that in 1998 one-quarter of the adult population said that they had tried the drug at some point, with the figure rising to 42 per cent among those aged 16 to 29.

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