Politicians' rush to own up to drug experiences becomes habit-forming

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Just a few years ago, politicians feared their careers might be stopped dead in their tracks by revelations of a youthful dalliance with soft drugs.

Just a few years ago, politicians feared their careers might be stopped dead in their tracks by revelations of a youthful dalliance with soft drugs.

But yesterday's revelations of minor pot-smoking by seven senior Tories illustrated how times have changed. That any of their careers would be damaged seems highly unlikely: last week one of the seven was even heard joking that he was ready to confess, but sadly no journalist had yet popped the question.

In an age when an afterdinner joint is considered de rigueur in polite metropolitan circles and when most of the Cabinet must have at least come across soft drugs at university, it is starting to look odd that so few politicians have chosen, up until now, to go public. Among those who have admitted recently that they tried cannabis are the former Sunday Telegraph editor Peregrine Worsthorne, the agony aunt Claire Rayner, the newscaster Jon Snow and the biologist Lewis Wolpert.

Back in 1995 though, Clare Short provoked horror when she suggested some of her Shadow Cabinet colleagues might have smoked cannabis.

She was admonished by Tony Blair after calling for the drug to be decriminalised, even though she had refused to say whether she had tried it, on thebasis that everyone else would then have to come clean.

More recently, Mo Mowlam became the first cabinet minister to come out as a "child of the Sixties".

She told a television interviewer earlier this year: "I tried marijuana, didn't like it particularly and unlike President Clinton I did inhale. But it wasn't part of my life then and that's what happened."

Keith Hellawell, the Government's drugs tsar, has speculated that he would be "very surprised" if some sitting MPs had not tried drugs. But apart from Ms Mowlam, few in the Government have yet been willing to confess.

Tony Blair bluntly told his biographer, The Independent's John Rentoul: "I didn't do drugs." But later his assertion was tempered by his press spokesman Alastair Campbell, who, perhaps fearing his boss's street-cred was about to plummet, told journalists: "If he had come across drugs, you can be sure he would have inhaled."

Others who have chosen to come clean have included the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman and former party leadership candidate, Matthew Taylor, who said he had tried cannabis as a student while at Oxford in the 1980s but had found the experience "absolutely disgusting".

Susan Kramer, who stood as the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor, also said she had tried the drug in the past.

Tory dope-smokers have been harder to spot until now, though in January 1999, a senior MEP, Tom Spencer, was fined after customs officers discovered two joints of cannabis and a gay pornographic video in his briefcase during a random check.

When asked last week which was more anti-social, 14 pints in public or a joint smoked in private, Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, confessed she found the question hard to answer as she had never tried either.

Even her party leader, William Hague, who this summer boasted of his 14-pints-in-a-day escapades in his youth, replied, when asked if he had ever smoked cannabis, that he had not.