Charles Clarke, the education secretary, has admitted that he tried the
drug "a couple of times in my late teens". Peter Hain, leader of the
Commons and Welsh secretary, has described how someone once tried to put "a
cannabis spliff or whatever you call them into my mouth, angry that I
wasn't smoking it". He did not inhale.

But what sent alarm bells ringing at No 10 this weekend was not these past
revelations but a seemingly innocuous remark from Gordon Brown, the
chancellor, that he had never tried the drug.

According to Westminster insiders, John Prescott, the deputy prime
minister, "went ballistic", arguing that such a reply would oblige other
ministers, including Tony Blair, to give a definite answer.

A message was sent around Whitehall offices telling ministers to give the
same answer: "We never respond to surveys."

The reclassification of cannabis -- from Class B to the less serious Class
C category -- comes into force on Thursday.The change has triggered an
obvious question from political journalists: which politicians have ever
dabbled with dope? Downing Street was thrown into a blue funk about what
Blair did in his student days when he wore purple loons and did Mick Jagger
impressions while fronting a rock band called Ugly Rumours.

Blair's spokesman said: "We don't respond to surveys. In terms of him, you
mean? I am not aware that he has ever commented." There were plenty of
drugs in Oxford when Blair was there in the early 1970s. But unlike Bill
Clinton, an earlier student, Blair has insisted that not only did he never
inhale, but he never put a spliff to his lips.

He told his biographer Jon Sopel in 1995: "The only thing my father really
drummed into me was never to take drugs . . . and, anyway, I was doing so
many other things that I never needed to."

A year earlier he joked that he had never smoked dope -- "but if I had, you
can be sure I would have inhaled".

The same temptation hung in the air at Edinburgh University when Brown was
the long-haired student rector there in the early 1970s. But his decision
to give a definite answer only clouded the issue.

Prescott was insistent that no minister should answer. "We don't respond to
surveys. That's the official response," said his spokesman.

Of the 21 members of the cabinet who were approached yesterday, more than
half gave the same stock response, word for word. Ministers who did commit
themselves emphasised that they were already on the record and had not
commented afresh.

Brown, who was accused by some party insiders of having put Blair on the
spot, whether deliberately or unwittingly, said that he had answered the
question before. But his spokesman said: "With any question being put to
all cabinet ministers, all we will say is that we do not respond to
surveys. If you asked if a minister had cheese on toast last night, you
would get the same response."

A spokesman for Hain said: "Everybody has been told to say that we do not
respond to surveys."

Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary who is a former
flatmate of Blair's, said: "I don't respond to those sort of questions."

Alistair Darling, the transport and Scottish secretary, said: "Mind your
own business".

Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman and minister without portfolio, was one
of only two cabinet members prepared to risk Prescott's wrath. "I have
never smoked any substance, legal or illegal," he said.

Hilary Armstrong, Labour's chief whip, said: "I've never smoked a cigarette
in my life so you can just about imagine what I've ever done with cannabis."

Away from the cabinet, the Home Office minister Caroline Flint, who has the
job of defending the new soft line on cannabis, has confessed to smoking
the drug while a student. She gave up because "I didn't like the scene
around it" she says in an interview with The Sunday Times today.

Prescott is believed to be privately unhappy about the downgrading of
cannabis. "I have seen what it does both in my 10 years at sea and on the
estates in my constituency," he has said. "I am not very tolerant of that."


Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jan 2004
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Contact: letters@sunday-times.co.uk
Website: http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/