Tory disarray over cannabis policy

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The Tories were in disarray last night after Ann Widdecombe's hardline drugs policy of on-the-spot fines for cannabis users was undermined, and to some extent ridiculed, by seven Shadow Cabinet members who admitted having smoked the drug.

The Tories were in disarray last night after Ann Widdecombe's hardline drugs policy of on-the-spot fines for cannabis users was undermined, and to some extent ridiculed, by seven Shadow Cabinet members who admitted having smoked the drug.

The confessions highlighted a rift between the "hard" and "soft" wings of the party with some senior figures accusing Miss Widdecombe and Michael Portillo of adopting the drug issue as a platform for a phantom leadership election. While Miss Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, used her conference speech last week to announce her "zero tolerance" policy on drugs, Mr Portillo, the shadow Chancellor, used his to call for a new, "inclusive"Conservatism.

The debate was extended yesterday when Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats became the first party leader to call for cannabis to be decriminalised.

Among the high-profile Tories who admitted using cannabis in their younger days were Francis Maude, shadow Foreign Secretary, Archie Norman, shadow Environment Secretary, and Lord Strathclyde, the party's leader in the House of Lords. Peter Ainsworth, shadow Culture Secretary, Bernard Jenkin, shadow Transport Minister, David Willetts, shadow Social Security Secretary and Oliver Letwin, shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, also told the Mail on Sunday they had tried the drug.

But one senior Conservative accused both Mr Portillo and Miss Widdecombe of allowing their followers to use the issue to highlight political differences between them. "They have done themselves quite a lot of damage," the former cabinet minister said last night. "Both are allowing their supporters to fight a leadership election which is not needed. We have got a leader we have chosen, and he is doing well. I think you can control your supporters, and they should do so."

Miss Widdecombe's plans for a "zero tolerance" policy on soft drugs and £100 on-the-spot fines for offenders looked certain to cause a dsipute at the next shadow cabinet meeting later this month. Some sources said her policy would probably be quietly ditched.

Mr Ainsworth said in a BBC interview yesterday that he had tried cannabis on several occasions, but thought he was going to die when someone put amyl nitrate under his nose. "The effect that cannabis had on me was to make me feel mildly sick about four times in my life. I never owned it or bought it, but I was in places where it was going round, so I had a puff," he said.

He hinted at irritation over the way Miss Widdecombe's policy had been announced. Although William Hague and Michael Portillo were told in advance, other Shadow Cabinet members read about it in the press on the day of her speech.

"The policy needs to be looked at again and it needs to be discussed, and that would be a help, frankly, when making policy," Mr Ainsworth said.

Mr Hague and Miss Widdecombe were among nine frontbenchers who denied ever having tried illegal drugs, while three, including Mr Portillo, did not answer. Two could not be contacted.

Last night Miss Widdecombe said the admissions had not altered her stance on drugs. "I am not interested in the past. I am only interested in the measures we need for the future," she said.

However Lord Cranborne, the former Conservative leader in the House of Lords, said he thought cannabis should be decriminalised. He was backed by Charles Kennedy, who said the use of cannabis should be downgraded to a civil offence.

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