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Pubdate: Mon, 09 Oct 2000
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2000 The Dallas Morning News
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MARIJUANA POLICY SPLITS BRITISH CONSERVATIVES

Former users among party leaders question proposal to implement mandatory penalties

LONDON (AP) -- Britain's opposition Conservative Party has suddenly split between advocates of a tough new policy against marijuana and senior party figures who admit they smoked it in their youth.

The issue flared up at the party's annual conference, where criminal justice spokeswoman Ann Widdecombe announced a policy of mandatory fines for the first offense of possessing any amount of marijuana.

"It means zero tolerance of possession. No more getting away with just a caution, no more hoping that a blind eye will be turned," said Ms. Widdecombe, who cited New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's anti-crime policies as her inspiration. The policy called for an automatic $145 fine on first offense.

Ms. Widdecombe's announcement was calculated to be popular with members of the traditional law-and-order party and attractive to swing voters.

However, the Police Superintendents Association called the policy unenforceable. The Daily Telegraph, usually a cheerleader for the Conservatives, said in an editorial that Ms. Widdecombe "displayed almost zero common sense." An editorial in The Times said her policy would "criminalize thousands of otherwise law-abiding individuals."

Then seven senior Tories told the Mail on Sunday newspaper that they had used marijuana.

"It was quite hard to go through Cambridge University in the '70s without doing it a few times," said Francis Maude, the party's spokesman on foreign affairs.

Environment spokesman Archie Norman said he tried marijuana and had no regrets. "It didn't do much for me. I turned to drink instead," Mr. Norman said.

"I think you expect human beings to explore and experiment. If you don't, you haven't been young," Mr. Norman said.

Culture spokesman Peter Ainsworth said he tried marijuana, but "it made me feel slightly sick." Welfare spokesman David Willetts admitted trying two puffs but not liking it.

The issue illustrated a split within the party between Ms. Widdecombe's hard line and Treasury spokesman Michael Portillo's appeal for a more inclusive and caring party.

Mr. Portillo, who has admitted to a past gay relationship, declined to talk about marijuana. "I think I've given enough information about my younger days, don't you?" he said.

The split poses a dilemma for William Hague, the party leader who boasted recently of downing 14 pints of beer a day as a teenager.

Cannabis accounted for 77 percent of the drug possession cases in 1998, the Home Office reported. In half of the total cases, the defendant was simply cautioned, and about one in four was fined. Senior police officials have said that enforcing the law against marijuana is not high among their priorities.

The governing Labor Party has avoided a debate on marijuana.

The Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in Parliament, want to create a Royal Commission to examine the issue and recommend possible changes in the law. The party's leader, Charles Kennedy, said Sunday he personally favored an end to criminal penalties.

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