British cabinet members admit past marijuana use

( LatWp ) - Eight members of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Cabinet admitted this week that they had smoked marijuana, in an unusual cascade of confessions that led to newspaper headlines such as ``Parliament has gone to pot.''

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, the Cabinet minister in charge of police and domestic security, started the string of admissions Thursday when she said in a television interview that she had tried marijuana while an undergraduate at Oxford University.

``I was wrong when I did it more than 25 years ago,'' Smith said, vowing to work to ``make sure we carry on bringing cannabis use down.'' The three-week-old Brown government is discussing whether to toughen penalties for marijuana use amid growing worry about stronger variants of the drug.

After Smith's candor, Alistair Darling, Britain's finance minister, said he had smoked pot ``occasionally in my youth.'' Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly said she had too but ``realized it was foolish and gave up.'' Harriet Harman, the deputy Labor Party leader, said she had tried it ``once or twice'' as a college student, but since then has ``indulged in the odd glass of wine, but not cannabis.''

Soon the headline writers were calling the prime minister's team the ``Hash Brownies.'' Cartoonists drew smoldering ``spliffs,'' as marijuana cigarettes are known here, atop Big Ben at Westminster.

For the record, Brown's office said the prime minister has never smoked marijuana. But a Brown spokesman responded with a firm ``yes'' when asked if the prime minister was comfortable with the candid admissions of his Cabinet.

For years, Britain has had a generally tolerant view of marijuana, as do many European countries. In 2002, the government here formally told Parliament that police would no longer arrest people for smoking the drug or possessing it for personal use, but would focus on dealers. With the recent emergence of a powerful variant known as ``skunk,'' the government is rethinking its approach.

Polls here have shown that the overwhelming majority of Britons don't think it matters if a politician tried marijuana as a young person.

``I find this whole thing amusing,'' said Matthew Kemp, 32, a sales manager in London who was looking at a front-page headline that read: ``Big Bong.'' Kemp recalled, as many others have this week, how different Bill Clinton's answer was when the marijuana question arose for him in 1992. Talking about his time as a student at Oxford, the then-presidential candidate said: ``I experimented with marijuana a time or two. And I didn't like it, and I didn't inhale, and I didn't try it again.''

Not all the Cabinet members said they had tried drugs. A spokesman for Health Secretary Alan Johnson, for example, offered that during his youth, Johnson ``did the sex and rock-and-roll, but not the drugs.''

A few political leaders refused to answer the question. Conservative Party leader David Cameron has resisted confirming or denying reports that he used drugs as teenager, saying he is ``entitled to a private past.''

Leading the growing number of forthright admissions is the memorable statement two years ago from Boris Johnson, an outspoken member of the Conservative Party. Responding to a report that an Oxford classmate said he thought Johnson had never taken drugs, Johnson said: ``This is an outrageous slur . ... Of course I've taken drugs.''

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