DRUGS have a funny effect on politicians.
Take British prime minister, David Cameron; the persistent questioning, while he was running for the leadership of the Tory party, as to whether he had ever taken cocaine, was met with the line — no pun intended — that he had never done so while a member of parliament.
And drugs are looming large on Mr Cameron’s horizon again, as he desperately distances himself from a heavyweight report, commissioned by his own government, which has been the first in the past 40 years to decide that the harshness of penalties has little effect on illegal drug use.
The study, set up by the home office, compared the experiences of other countries, such as Portugal — which has decriminalised the use of everything from cannabis to heroin for more than a decade — to Britain and reached some stimulating conclusions.
“There is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of....drugs use,” the report noted.
But Mr Cameron, with UKIP bearing down on his right flank, has immediately washed his hands of the findings and insisted there will be no change in the so-called ‘war on drugs’.
In a put-down to his coalition colleagues, the Liberal Democrats, whom the Tories used to dismiss as “soft on drugs, high on taxes” when they needed their votes to prop them up in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron indicated he only agreed to give them their ‘fix’ of a home office report to stop them progressing onto harder substances, such as the royal commission of inquiry they originally demanded, which would have been more difficult for Downing Street to dismiss.
But the picture is complex, as the study repeatedly stressed it was not advocating decriminalisation, and that it could not pinpoint the cause of the decrease in Portugal’s across-the-board drug-use rates, and subsequent, related drop in cases of drugs-linked HIV infections.
The most obvious explanation would be Portugal’s massive shift of resources, from dealing with drug users in the criminal justice system to pumping that money into health and rehabilitation programmes, instead.
It is a view shared by the Lib Dem home office minister, Norman Baker, who said the Tories attempted to suppress the report: “Banging people up and increasing sentences does not work. If anything, evidence is to the contrary.”
The study also shows that drugs use is declining in Britain, which both sides in the debate have latched onto as evidence of their point.
The Lib Dems insist wider societal issues, such as more health-conscious, risk-averse young people, who are armed with reliable information about drugs, is the reason, while Mr Cameron — against all the evidence of his own government’s report — still insists its down to a zero-tolerance stance.
So, can we now expect an honest, hysteria-free debate on the best ways to deal with drugs and their myriad of related social problems?
Sadly, it’s unlikely, as politicians tend to get a bit fuzzy with drugs.
George W Bush used the same Cameronesque vagueness during the 2000 US presidential election campaign, when he would only say he had not taken cocaine in the previous 15 years, insisting that, as this was the requirement for all federal employees, he need not elaborate further.
Thanks to Florida’s hanging chads, Mr Bush just nosed ahead in that pivotal election — a feat probably not helped by the fact that in the last days of the campaign he was a recovering alcoholic who had decided not to level with voters about a drink-driving conviction.
US president Barack Obama admitted early on that he was quite the bong-head at school, as he turned the experience into a badge of trust by stating he was honest enough to tell the truth, and wise enough to advise others not to dabble as he did.
But Mr Obama is unusual.
It was a very different story for Mr Cameron’s closest political buddy, George Osborne, when he was forced to strongly deny claims from dominatrix, Natalie Rowe, that he snorted a “big fat line of cocaine” in front of her.
The chancellor dismissed a 1994 picture of him with his arm around Rowe — who ran the Black Beauties escort agency, which charged £350 for S&M sex — behind a table dusted with white powder, when it resurfaced in the tabloids in 2011, by stating he was innocent and would not be “distracted” from the reform of the bank sector.
However, media interest was such that one wag at the British treasury’s press office would answer the phone with an inquiry about whether the call was concerned with “spanking or banking?”
Irish politicians also tend to take a (cannabis) leaf out of the book of denial as, while many admit to having “experimented” with the “odd joint” at college, none, with the exception of maverick independent TD-turned-MEP, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, ever shared the experiences of many of their contemporaries and tried anything stronger.
Portugal took action because the country had 100,000 heroin addicts, and the highest rate of HIV infection, from syringe sharing, in the EU. Switching resources away from punishment and jail, to health and help, seems to have worked out well there.
Politicians need to be more willing to come clean on their own experiences, if we are to move on as a society in Ireland and deal with this situation in a meaningful way.
Despite Mr Cameron’s determination, he will not be able to shut down the debate, which he unwillingly started with the home office study, and that is a conversation Ireland badly needs to engage in, as well.
The British government’s evidence-based inquiry points the way to dealing with the situation, not through the tired cliches of the so-called war on drugs, but by adopting a stance of enlightened realism.
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