Sorry, Miss Widdecombe, your drugs policy won't work

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On Tuesday, Michael Portillo gave us social tolerance. Yesterday, Ann Widdecombe gave us - what else? - zero tolerance. The shadow Home Secretary, in her now traditional peripatetic performance at the Conservative Party conference, told us that, under her watch, there would be "no surrender to the drugs menace". It was precisely what her audience wanted to hear, and she was duly rewarded, on her birthday, with champagne, a standing ovation and a cuddle from William Hague.

On Tuesday, Michael Portillo gave us social tolerance. Yesterday, Ann Widdecombe gave us - what else? - zero tolerance. The shadow Home Secretary, in her now traditional peripatetic performance at the Conservative Party conference, told us that, under her watch, there would be "no surrender to the drugs menace". It was precisely what her audience wanted to hear, and she was duly rewarded, on her birthday, with champagne, a standing ovation and a cuddle from William Hague.

We don't want to spoil the party, but there is something wrong with Tory policies on drugs: they wouldn't work.

Miss Widdecombe thinks that the war against drugs can be won, "if only". If only, that is, the politicians were more determined, the penalties were higher, the police were given more resources - then the pushers would be vanquished and the one-third of all crime and 80 per cent of all burglaries would subside.

A former Home Office minister, Miss Widdecombe should know better. Nowhere in the world has such a "war" been won. Every possible measure and vast amounts of public money have been expended to no great effect. There is little in Miss Widdecombe's proposals to suggest that she might succeed where so many have failed.

Take her suggestion that a £100 fixed penalty be imposed on anyone possessing cannabis. If pursued with zero tolerance, it would mean: charging an unfeasibly high percentage of the population; depriving the police of their discretion to deal with minor offences in a sensitive fashion, especially when involving certain ethnic and religious minorities; and, not least, the end of every rock concert in the country.

There were sensible things in Miss Widdecombe's speech yesterday. Her humane approach to prison reform, camouflaged under a welter of authoritarian rhetoric about "places of idleness", was welcome; "cops in shops" is outlandish, but reducing the bureaucratic load on the police is surely worth pursuing. The asylum policy - secure accommodation - was the usual disappointing, dismal stuff.

However, her speech will be principally judged on her dedication to zero tolerance on drugs. But zero tolerance works only when it goes with the grain of public opinion. Otherwise, as Lord Cranborne warned, the law will be brought into disrepute and made to look an ass. Too few of us - and this includes even The Daily Telegraph - think a "war on drugs" is very sensible. And that is why Miss Widdecombe's ideas are impractical to the point of asininity.

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