Emma Hussain explains the need for a progressive drug policy in light of the revelations about Tory leadership contenders’ drug use.
Last month as the Tory leadership race took shape, one by one each candidate was forced to reveal their past experiences with drugs. Beginning with Michael Gove’s admission that he took cocaine “several times” when working as a journalist more than twenty years ago, a string of candidates dusted out their personal medicine cabinets: from Rory Stewart’s adventures with opium at an Iranian wedding 15 years ago, to Andrea Leadsom’s experiments with cannabis in her student days, the headlines buzzed with stories of such misdemeanours. Both of the final two candidates have confirmed some level of drug use in the past: Boris Johnson, somewhat predictably, admitted years ago during his London mayoral campaign to having used cocaine and cannabis as a student, while Jeremy Hunt had a marijuana milkshake while backpacking on his gap year. (Loving these PM options, by the way.)
But what does this information bring to the leadership question? Far be it from me to actually agree with Andrea Leadsom, but there’s something to her statement that “Everyone is entitled to a private life before becoming an MP.” There’s a certain pointlessness in searching through politicians’ pasts in this way – opinions on Gove aside, his having taken cocaine in the 90s doesn’t in any practical sense affect the quality of prime minister he would have made. Even Jeremy Corbyn declared himself “unconcerned by Michael Gove’s past behaviour”.
The Conservative Party has, in general, taken a punitive legislative approach to drug use
However, as former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron pointed out to The Mirror, there’s an obvious hypocrisy to the way these candidates, all extremely privileged individuals, can claim deep regret about their actions, while also saying they do not affect their leadership potential. The Conservative Party has, in general, taken a punitive legislative approach to drug use, despite the complex social fabric from which the often-racialized issues of addiction and dealing are sewn. There is, for example, a distinction between certain reactions, largely from the political right, to a circulated photo of Diane Abbott drinking alcohol on a TFL service – she’s a lawbreaker! She’s irresponsible! –, and responses to the revelations of these Tory candidates’ hedonistic experimentations – everyone’s tried it once! They were young!
Perhaps we need to see Gove et al’s hypocrisy not as a direct reason to prohibit them from holding office, but rather an example of how there is a social complexity to the (undeniably dangerous) world of drugs, and only nuanced policy can move these questions forward. Why are we inclined to accept drugs as a rite of passage for some demographics, while vilifying others for the lightest link to them?
Moving forward, with either Hunt or Johnson as Prime Minister, the country will be contending with a range of issues that both men’s drug use is irrelevant to; but we can hope that these revelations move a frank national conversation about drug policy towards the mainstream.