Vote Tory - and land yourself a criminal record

All right, I did have a couple of spliffs at a party but I didn't inhale
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The Independent Online

I may have smoked it once, a long time ago. Yes, I have tried it a few times but of course I didn't enjoy it. Thus spoke the great and the good last week, trying to be honest about their use of cannabis in the wake of Ann Widdecombe's bizarre outburst at the Conservative Party conference. The circumlocutions are understandable, given that possession remains a criminal offence, but also faintly ridiculous. The effects vary from person to person, but it surely cannot be the case that every famous individual who has tried cannabis was as loftily unaffected as their protestations suggest.

I may have smoked it once, a long time ago. Yes, I have tried it a few times but of course I didn't enjoy it. Thus spoke the great and the good last week, trying to be honest about their use of cannabis in the wake of Ann Widdecombe's bizarre outburst at the Conservative Party conference. The circumlocutions are understandable, given that possession remains a criminal offence, but also faintly ridiculous. The effects vary from person to person, but it surely cannot be the case that every famous individual who has tried cannabis was as loftily unaffected as their protestations suggest.

To hear them talk, you would think that broadcasters, columnists and politicians have a genetic resistance to drugs, unlike the rest of the population. "I have smoked it. It wasn't for me" - Peregrine Worsthorne. "It was all right, not as good as Charlton winning" - Michael Grade. "I didn't like it much" - Claire Rayner. "One puff and it was not for me" - Jacqui Lait, Tory social security spokesperson. Mo Mowlam is, I believe, the only member of the Cabinet to admit to having smoked cannabis, but "it didn't strike me as a useful use of my time". It was that great equivocator, Bill Clinton, who said he had tried it at Oxford but didn't inhale, sounding anxious to be cool and a scaredy-cat at the same time. Just say no, Bill, for God's sake.

If people lined up to make similar claims about alcohol, most of us would collapse in helpless laughter. "Someone once offered me a gin-and-tonic, as I believe it's called, but I found the taste quite unpleasant. I did try whisky when I was at college, but of course I didn't swallow." It often strikes me that there is a huge rhetorical gap between how we actually behave in this country and the way we discuss contentious issues such as soft drugs; while politicians lecture us sternly about the supposed dangers of cannabis, its use has become widespread and unremarkable.

Do I recoil in horror when someone produces a spliff towards the end of a dinner party? Of course not. Nor do any of my friends, even people in their sixties who are too old to have become familiar with cannabis in college, as my generation certainly did. As I have pointed out before, the dilemma for parents of teenage children is whether to conceal their own enjoyment of dope from their offspring, who are almost certainly smoking it upstairs in their bedrooms with the windows open. It is almost 20 years since a senior London policeman told me how he coped when friends wanted to light up in his company, which was to wander tactfully into the garden until they'd finished.

Enter Ms Widdecombe, with her brilliant scheme to land millions of voters with criminal records. Politicians are often accused of trying to bribe the electorate - three pence off petrol, guv? Oh all right, make it five - but this is a step too far in the other direction. We will fine your children! We will wreck their lives by making it impossible for them to get jobs as doctors or teachers! Full marks for originality, but there could scarcely be more convincing evidence that the alarming Ms Widdecombe is on another planet. Men are from Mars, Tories are from - well, God knows where. Having spent years inveighing against the nanny state, they now boast a shadow home secretary who wants to take away our pocket money if we don't do what she tells us.

Labour's most accomplished spin-doctors could hardly have found a more effective way of turning voters against Ms Widdecombe. Forty-two per cent of 16- to 29-year-olds have tried cannabis, according to the 1998 British Crime Survey, and they are not going to support a party that wants to stigmatise them in this way. The idea that smoking a few joints leads to a life of dissipation in drug dens, probably with a bit of white-slaving on the side, is a hallucination that seizes politicians from time to time, until they emerge chastened by a heavy dose of public ridicule.

Lord Cranborne, the former Conservative leader in the House of Lords, rejected Ms Widdecombe's batty proposals, as did horrified representatives of the police. Even the Daily Telegraph, in a leader, accused her of displaying "almost zero common sense". That leaves us in an absurd situation where the argument against decriminalisation of cannabis has comprehensively been lost, yet scandalously few of our leaders are prepared to admit it. If Ms Widdecombe is an example of the long-term effects of sobriety, I think we had all better rush out and get stoned.

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