Once Upon A Time, There Was A Pot-Smoking Prince

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Windsor family isn't perfect is a headline that goes back so many generations, it has lost its shock value. But after the British tabloid News of the World revealed that PRINCE HARRY, 17, third in line to the throne, had spent last summer boozing it up at a local pub and smoking cannabis both there and on the grounds of Highgrove, his dad's country home 100 miles from London, the media have gnawed on the story like a Labrador retriever with a steak bone. Like so many royal tales before it, Harry's travails offer hacks an irresistible chance to slalom between salivating prurience (was he having sex too?) and tongue-clucking high-mindedness (how hard this must be on the poor Queen!).

The known facts: after exams last summer, with Dad in London on business and big brother William on a year abroad, Harry was sometimes left home alone at Highgrove. Though two years under age, he drank at a local pub, often achieving the state British papers call "tired and emotional." This was nothing new for Harry, who has been drinking in public since he was 12. He and his friends would continue in the soundproof basement lair maintained for the princes at Highgrove called Club H, which had a well-stocked bar. At the pub, at Highgrove and at private parties, Harry also smoked pot with his buddies. Staff eventually told Prince Charles about the aroma from the basement; he held a "calm and serious" talk with his son about the dangers of drug abuse and a fast crowd. A tearful Harry is said to have confessed and promised to forgo drugs (though not, apparently, alcohol--he was seen downing a few at a pub on New Year's Eve). Charles also arranged for Harry to spend an eye-opening day at a rehab clinic.

The juiciness of these revelations at first obscured how neatly they were tied up in a pleasing tabloid morality tale: prodigal son returns home. Since Diana's death, when Charles was widely reviled as a clueless emotional eunuch, he has doggedly worked to restore his reputation--which depends crucially on being seen as a good father. Even his determined campaign to accustom the country (and his mother) to the wifelike status of Camilla Parker Bowles takes second place to burnishing his paternal image. Charles' aides were savvy enough to cooperate once the News of the World sought confirmation for its newest scoop, which meant his thoughtful handling of Harry and the drug-clinic visit got a lot more ink than Club H's bar and Charles' ignorance of his son's vigorous social life. COURAGE OF A WISE AND LOVING DAD was the paper's main editorial, widely echoed in the British press.

It helps Charles that virtually every British parent is instinctively sympathetic. Illegal drug use is higher in Britain than in any other European country. Smoking pot is so widespread (almost 40% of those 15 to 34 have tried it, according to the latest European Union report) that the government plans to decriminalize possession of small amounts. Drinking-age laws are almost universally ignored; one-fifth of 15- and 16-year-olds report having been drunk three times in the past month.

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