Tories' division on drugs brings renewed pressure on Labour

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The government yesterday came under pressure from Labour MPs to relax the laws on drugs, as the spotlight switched from the Tories' disarray to Labour's reluctance to consider reform.

The government yesterday came under pressure from Labour MPs to relax the laws on drugs, as the spotlight switched from the Tories' disarray to Labour's reluctance to consider reform.

The Home Secretary Jack Straw said he welcomed the debate prompted by the muddle over the Tories' policy, but he also rejected calls for cannabis to be decriminalised.

Mr Straw agreed that anti-drugs effort should focus on hard drugs, which he said were addictive and killed, but that neither should the dangers of cannabis be underestimated.

"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," he said.

"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'."

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, showed the Government's irritation by challenging newspaper editors asking whether Cabinet ministers had tried cannabis to say whether they had used it.

Mr Prescott said: "They should declare what they were up to in the flower-power days. If the editor of the Daily Mail tells us whether he did it, I will tell him whether I did it." He added: "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."

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, accused the Government of "political cowardice". "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."

Martin Salter, MP for Reading West, called for a Royal Commission on the issue - a view shared privately by Mo Mowlam, the Cabinet Office Minister who is responsible for co-ordinating the Government's anti-drugs strategy.

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