The double standards on drugs

Published by The i paper (10th June, 2019)

Earlier this year the life of a science teacher in Peterborough was devastated after he was struck off from his profession. Police found him with drugs  when searching his car and home. He was not a dealer but an occasional user, who insisted he had never taken them on to school premises. Yet simple possession was enough to get him banned, like other teachers before him, because use of Class A drugs such as cocaine and heroin is placed alongside terrorism and child pornography as unacceptable for those working in schools.

These rules were sanctioned by Michael Gove during his self-declared crusade to drive up standards as education secretary. Now this same politician  is accused of breathtaking hypocrisy after being forced to confess he used cocaine ‘several’ times in his 30s. Weekend reports even claimed this unlikely hedonist, better known previously for his love of Germanic opera rather than Colombian marching powder, even hosted ‘cocaine-fuelled parties’ on the same day as writing a column sneering at ‘middle-class professionals’ who ignored the impact of illegal drug use.

Gove is far from alone at Westminster in having dallied with illicit drugs. They are representatives of a nation in which more than one-third of the population has tried them. So just like teachers – and yes, journalists – many politicians have smoked, swallowed or snorted products that carry a jail sentence under the law. Among his 10 Tory leadership rivals, six have admitted using drugs from cannabis to opium. They shrug it off, of course, blaming youthful mistakes. ‘Everyone is entitled to a private life before becoming an MP,’ said the sanctimonious Andrea Leadsom after saying she smoked weed at university.

I am not remotely fussed by their use of drugs. They were simply having fun during younger days. But I am incensed by their arrogance, their lack of self-awareness and, above all, their sickening display of double-standards. For this latest round of Westminster drug confessions underscores with hideous clarity why there is such despair over politics when it seems to be run by prosperous elitists who say one thing and do another. For these people back policies of prohibition, despite their obvious and often-fatal failures, that wreck the lives of many less fortunate fellow citizens who carry out similar youthful indiscretions.

People such as those struck-off teachers and others with criminal records barred from jobs. People such as children forced to run county lines for an increasingly violent drug trade, some ending up in coffins. People such as teenagers with mental health issues because cannabis became stronger to boost profits for crooks. People clogging up prisons and living on streets because they are seen as criminals rather than humans needing help. People mourning a family member or friend who died from unregulated products. Not to mention millions more people living in poorer nations ripped apart by the corrosive war on drugs.

The only people who benefit from prohibition are gangsters and undertakers. When the price of Gove’s drug of choice is falling and its purity is rising, it should be clear even to the dimmest minister their policies are not working. When prisons are flooded with drugs, how can anyone argue security will stop the flow into a country with more than 11,000 miles of coastline and when chemists constantly develop new products to evade detection techniques?

No wonder some frustrated police chiefs – including in Theresa May’s local force with her tacit support – have chosen to divert users from the criminal justice system as they focus precious resources on getting them into treatment to reduce local crime.

If you still think prohibition is a good idea, look at China. This control-freak state executes hundreds each year for drugs and has sent 320,000 alleged users into detention camps without trial – yet it still had a giant leap in addicts from 150,000 to 2.5 million over the past three decades. Analysts think the real figure is several multiples higher. Even South Korea, hailed as the model of tough, shame-based policies, has had a hefty rise in arrests in recent years. ‘The drug problem has increased,’ said one Seoul addiction expert last month. ‘It is well known drugs are available.’

Only a few blimpish caricatures still argue with real passion for prohibition. Many MPs privately accept it does not work. But their inertia, their timidity, their constant fear of negative headlines, is fostering tragedy. Britain has the highest rate of drug fatalities in Western Europe and the highest rates of imprisonment, accompanied by rising violent crime as gangs fight over vast profits in a free market created by political failure.

Ministers even stopped Scotland from introducing safe consumption rooms, common in Europe, despite a surge in HIV. Yet if we had followed Portugal’s lead, promoting health over punishment through decriminalisation, there would be 40 lives saved each week in Britain. Criminalisation fosters racism when black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, despite half the rate of use according to self-reporting data.

And don’t be fooled: Labour is just as bad as the Tories on this issue, although nine of Gordon Brown’s cabinet admitted they had smoked dope. Yet there are sound conservative arguments for reform since it curbs crime, protects families, promotes individual freedom, assists the police, aids global security and is fiscally responsible since drugs could be taxed if legal. It might even start defusing their toxicity among younger and ethnic minority voters.

Gove made the defence he had always argued people should not be defined by past mistakes. Quite right. But politicians should be judged – and convicted in the court of public opinion – if they treat voters with pure contempt. These people at Westminster are guilty of displaying disgusting hypocrisy as they persist with deadly and destructive policies that have failed so clearly, even within their own circles.

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