Tory modernisers move towards legalising cannabis

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The legalisation of cannabis has joined the euro as central issues of the Tory leadership contest. Michael Portillo hinted last night that he might drop the Conservatives' opposition to the legalisation of the drug, while former minister Peter Lilley has said that it should be sold through government-licensed outlets.

Speaking during a television debate between the five Conservative leadership candidates, Mr Portillo said the argument was "finely balanced" and promised "yes, under me, we would consider this question". He added: "Actually I have not reached a position on this."

Mr Lilley argues in an article for the Daily Telegraph that the current law on cannabis is unenforcable, because it is indefensible, and that "the alleged health risks have been exaggerated".

"The key objective of reforming the cannabis laws should surely be to break that contact between soft drug users and the criminals who push hard drugs," he said.

The question of whether cannabis should be legalised is likely to become a central issue in the Tory leadership contest, help define the candidates as modernisers or traditionalists.

The four other candidates ­ David Davis, Michael Ancram, Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke ­ all insisted on Thursday night's television programme that they would not legalise the drug. The issue was a rare moment of disagreement between the five men during the hour-long BBC Question Time Special, recorded in London in front of an invited audience of Tory supporters and party members, as well as voters who switched allegiance to Labour and Liberal Democrat.

The candidates also clashed on the euro. Kenneth Clarke, the only contender to support joining the single currency, accused his colleagues of destroying the party's prospects over the issue.

He said: "I spent the election like a Trappist monk, the nearest imitation I have ever given to a Trappist monk, not actually talking about it, whilst my colleagues were destroying the party by making 'Save the Pound' the key element in an election campaign against a Government which was unpopular on just about every other issue you could think of."

Mr Portillo said the Conservatives had become "the pub bore on this subject", and appealed for the party to start debating a wider range of issues, notably the state of the public services.

He said: "We have reached the stage in the Conservative Party where, if we had a week's party conference, and in that week we had 10 minutes of row about the euro, the rest of the week would be wasted. We would not be reported for anything else that we said.

"We really have to go through a conference soon, this October, in which we don't talk about this subject, so that people may then hear us talking about all the other subjects."