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22/04/2007 16:00:00

UK: I smoked cannabis too, says health secretary Hewitt

Patricia Hewitt has reignited the debate over cannabis after she
admitted smoking the drug while she was at university.

The Health Secretary became the highest profile Labour figure to come
clean about marijuana use prompting criticism about the Government's
mixed messages on drugs.

Miss Hewitt, who has previously refused to comment when asked if she had
tried drugs, insisted that she only tried cannabis once and didn't like it.

In an interview with the Independent, she said: "I tried cannabis once
when I was a student. It didn't do anything for me and I never tried it
again. I've not used any other illegal drug."

The Health Secretary went on to insist that cannabis should not be
declassified, although she was a member of the Cabinet when Labour took
the controversial decision to downgrade from a Class B drug to a Class C
drug three years ago.

The move has been fiercely criticised by police and mental health
groups, who claim it has caused a surge in abuse among youngsters.

Concern about super-strength cannabis - known as skunk - has also grown
following a spate of murders and brutal assaults where cannabis
psychosis has been cited as a factor.

Miss Hewitt said: "I'm in no doubt that cannabis use is harmful for
people with mental health problems... So I wouldn't want to see cannabis

The Health Secretary studied at the Australian National University, in
Canberra, before going on to complete two masters degrees at Oxford and
Cambridge. She did not specify whether she had tried cannabis in Britain
or Australia.

Her admission came as a new official study revealed that over a third of
all 15 and 16-year-olds in England have tried cannabis - the highest in

The extent of teenage drug taking was revealed in a report from the
NHS's 'The Information Centre'. It also revealed that over half of
15-year-olds had been offered cannabis. Meanwhile, the number of
hospital admissions in which illegal drugs played a role has almost
tripled in the last nine year.

Previous Labour ministers who have admitted trying cannabis include the
former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, the former Northern Ireland
Secretary Mo Mowlam and the health minister Caroline Flint.

Tony Blair has been asked repeatedly whether he ever took drugs but has
never given a clear 'yes' or 'no'.

However, many of the Prime Minister's close friends were known to have
openly used cannabis while he was studying at Oxford.

The Chancellor Gordon Brown, Home Secretary John Reid and Commons Leader
Jack Straw have all denied taking illegal substances.

Professor Neil McKeganey, of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at
Glasgow University, said: "It is clear that cannabis can both cause
health problems and exacerbate them.

"But it is regrettable that we discuss cannabis use in terms of
celebrity or political disclosures of single episode use.

"That takes the focus away from the real danger of cannabis. It is a
drug we have seriously underestimated. For someone like Patricia Hewitt
to say that I tried the drug once and didn't like it belies the
seriousness of the issue.

"The reclassification of cannabis may have been the single most unwise
decision made by this Labour government."

Peter Stoker, director of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, said:
"Patricia Hewitt says that cannabis use is harmful for people with
mental health problems, but research shows that it is also harmful for
people without mental health problems and can even trigger them.

"I find it extraordinary that she says she is against the
'declassification' of cannabis when it was this Labour Government that
reclassified it in the first place.

"Miss Hewitt seems to be making things up as she goes along. The only
thing I can put it down to is the dope she smoked when she was younger."

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "It is welcome that the Minister
has belatedly acknowledged the alarming mental health implications for
cannabis use.

"She should also acknowledge it is not just a problem for people with
mental health problems, there is growing evidence it can lead to mental
health problems in the first place. "She should also acknowledge that it
is the Government's chaotic and confused policy on drugs that has led to
more young people thinking it is ok to take the drug, thus compounding
the problems she has identified."

Speaking about the new NHS drug figures, Liberal Democrat health
spokesman Norman Lamb added: "These shocking figures demonstrate the
very serious health risks, on top of the social cost, of increased drug
use. "Illegal drugs not only affect hardcore addicts, but pose a real
and increasing danger to many young people."

Author: Daily Mail via UKCIA

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