Straw stands firm on drugs laws

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Home secretary Jack Straw today branded the Tory's "zero tolerance" drugs stance "mad", as another shadow cabinet member reportedly admitted using cannabis.

Home secretary Jack Straw today branded the Tory's "zero tolerance" drugs stance "mad", as another shadow cabinet member reportedly admitted using cannabis.

He said the row over Ann Widdecombe's plans to fine users of illegal substances a minimum £100 showed the Conservative's were unfit to govern.

And he stood firm over the Government's current drugs laws, saying there would be no relaxation or attempt to decriminalised soft drugs.

Mr Straw spoke after Tim Yeo, the Tory Agriculture spokesman, is said to have admitted using and enjoying cannabis.

His comments followed similar confessions from Francis Maude, Archie Norman and five other shadow ministers and Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP sitting on the Home Affairs select committee.

Mr Yeo's remarks came just a day after Conservative leader William Hague attempted a dignified retreat from the party's hardline cannabis policy.

He said further consultation was needed before it could be widely accepted.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott made clear the Government would continue to resist calls for decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis use.

Speaking during a visit to Peckham, south London, where he was announcing new money for neighbourhood renewal projects, Mr Prescott insisted: "I think the Government is absolutely right.

"I am a hardliner on drugs. I think cannabis leads to use of other drugs and I am against that.

"I have seen what it does, both in my 10 years at sea and on the estates in my constituency, so I am not very tolerant of that."

Earlier, Mr Straw agreed the anti-drugs effort should focus on substances which were addictive and killed. But the dangers associated with cannabis should not be underestimated, he insisted.

"Pharmacologists and psychiatrists tell us that cannabis can have very severe short-term and long-term effects," said Mr Straw.

"The long-term effects include a very severe exacerbation of mental illness and also include cancer. It is reckoned that cannabis is between two and four times as carcinogenic as tobacco.

"If cannabis were legalised, then consumption of a drug for which the evidence is very strong that it is very harmful will unquestionably increase and in five or 10 years' time, people will say 'Why have you done this? It has made us more unhealthy'."

Mr Straw said the admissions by eight shadow cabinet members that they had used cannabis should not affect drugs policy.

"I don't think any policy should be led by whether or not as a youth one got into one indiscretion or another," he said.

The bulk of the Cabinet have either denied taking cannabis, or declined to respond to questions on the issue.

But Labour backbencher Paul Flynn, the MP for Newport West, who has long campaigned for a more liberal approach to cannabis, said he despaired of the Government's attitude.

"The brains of the Home Office ministers have undergone a mind meld. There is one brain and the only way to get new ideas into it is, I believe, through a lobotomy, which is unlikely to happen," said Mr Flynn.

"I have tried every reasonable means to say to them that their two basic assumptions about drugs, that prohibition reduces use, and that legalisation increases use, are both falsehoods and can be demonstrated as such.

"Public opinion is ahead of the political cowardice that has been shown by Labour ministers at the moment," Mr Flynn declared.

And drugs abuse expert Dame Ruth Runciman, who chaired a recent inquiry into drugs law which recommended that cannabis be reclassified from a class B to a class C drug, said she hoped that Mr Straw might yet be persuaded to reconsider the Government's approach.

"He doesn't appear to be ready to reclassify cannabis to a class C drug, though I remain hopeful that he may reconsider that. That seems to us ... having looked very carefully at the evidence available, to be the appropriate place to classify it ...

"Our view is that cannabis is not a harmless drug, but in terms of the main criteria of harm, which are mortality, morbidity, relationship with crime, addictiveness et cetera, it is less dangerous than all the other main illicit drugs, or than alcohol or tobacco," she said.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: "This fiasco exemplifies just how out of touch William Hague's Conservative Party is with Britain today.

"How can William Hague have 150% confidence in his shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe when she does not enjoy that confidence from within the shadow cabinet nor the police."

However, the row highlighted the debate on drugs policy and renewed calls for decriminalisation of cannabis.

Former chief constable of Gwent police Francis Wilkinson argued cannabis was less damaging to society than tobacco or alcohol in a pamphlet published today entitled The Leaf and the Law.

He said: "There is an enormous illegal industry growing fat on the prohibition of a drug that is less harmful than either alcohol or tobacco. It is time for politicians to start debating this issue seriously."

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