Sunday National, 8th August 2021.
What percentage of the UK cabinet do you reckon have used Class A drugs at some point in their lives? How many MPs? What percentage of Lords? How many of their staff? I’d be prepared to wager a hefty sum that the prevalence of drug use around Westminster is considerably higher than the population at large – and all the evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of the population use or have used drugs too. And that doesn’t include nicotine or alcohol.
By way of context, Scottish Government statistics suggest around 14% of folk are prepared to admit they’ve used controlled substances in the last twelve months. This increases to around 25% of Scots who disclose they’ve used some kind of drug at some point in their lives. The true percentage seems guaranteed to be higher still. Cannabis is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most commonly identified drug, followed by prescription painkillers taken without a doctor’s note, then cocaine and ecstasy.
The Prime Minister, characteristically, tells two different stories about whether he has ever committed an offence under section 5 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. His first public line was that “I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose.”
Johnson told a different story to GQ magazine back in 2007, admitting he tried cocaine “at university and I remember it vividly. It achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever.” He now claims it is wrong to say he used the class A drug, as he had no idea what the chemical composition of the white powder he snuffled was. You’ll be unstunned to discover this isn’t a defence in law.
Presumably because of a compromising number of witnesses, back in 2019 Michael Gove was forced to admit he took cocaine on “several occasions” as “a young journalist” but denied having “a habit,” expressing the necessary public regret for the youthful mistakes he made during his mid-30s. Needless to say, Gove has faced no criminal consequences as a result of this admission. Even Dame Andrea Leadsom – the apogee of small-minded, churchy, middle-English matronliness – confessed that she’d “smoked weed at university and have never smoked it again since.” “Everyone is entitled to a private life before becoming an MP,” she said.
A private life? Let me remind you that under the 1971 Act, the maximum penalty for cannabis possession is 5 years imprisonment. Class A drugs can, at least in principle, get you seven years in the slammer. Curiously there’s no defence in the Misuse of Drugs Act that says “I was wearing black tie at the time, officer” or “what went on in the 1990s stays in the 1990s,” or “I am chairman of the Conservative Party.”
But de facto, that’s the world we occupy, where Tory hypocrites can use their disposable income to get wired to the moon, and plead their youth and inexperience in the press, while they preside over a criminal system of drugs laws which jails other people’s children for crimes ministers also committed, while Conservative politicians moralise, fingerwag, and contemplate a grim tally of drug-related deaths and record of pointless incarceration with dry eyes. The forever war on drugs must continue, so long as the only casualties are other people.
Questioned about his attitude to drug consumption rooms during his visit to Scotland this week, Boris Johnson’s answer summed up the desperate lack of seriousness which characterises his government from tip to tail. “I’ll give you my instincts, okay. I am not in favour, instinctively, of encouraging people to take more drugs. What I am in favour of is helping problem addicts off drugs – helping people with problems off dependency. But I’m also in favour of a tough approach.”
This is the considered reflection of the Prime Minister and Minister for the Union, just one week after 1,339 drug-related deaths were reported in Scotland. Across the rest of the UK, problematic drug use is also implicated in rising numbers of premature deaths. But with Johnson, these long-standing, life-threatening issues treated as surprising novelties, the stuff of “instinctual” responses and cheap slogans, years after a more substantive response was called for from his government.
The idea that establishing a regulatory framework for safe injection facilities is “encouraging people to take more drugs” – as if we’re proposing to sell ecstasy in a 2-for-1 offer in Boots – sums up the intellectual and moral unseriousness of the man, and of the government he leads. Heads planted very firmly in the sand, inconvenient realties are left to die quietly in alleyways and on waste ground, while MPs dole out lectures about effective law enforcement and the virtues of abstinence.
Professor Alex Stevens from the University of Kent has a sharp phrase for the game Conservative politicians are playing here. He calls it the “moral sidestep.” “When politicians argue for policy change on the basis of evidence,” Stevens argues, they are “met with moral claims, rather than evidential refutation.”
He gives the example of Theresa May. Asked by the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan about the proven effectiveness of safe consumption facilities in reducing drugs-related deaths and as gateways to other services, May responded that should couldn’t endorse this “very liberal” approach. “I am very clear that we should recognise the damage that drugs do to people’s lives. Our aim should be to ensure people come off drugs, do not go on drugs in the first place and keep clear of drugs. That is what we should focus on.” Forget the evidence: drugs are bad.
The basic Tory line remains that there should be no compromises with reality. Small-minded, hectoring, moralistic – you won’t be surprised to discover that Douglas Ross made a series of interventions during his stint in the House of Commons, decrying any and every harm reduction measure the Scottish Government has contemplated and introduced to try to address this appalling crisis in our public health.
Ross’s original solution is “enforcing the law properly, not soft-touch sentencing and back-door decriminalisation,” clutching his pearls at the idea of the government “actively setting up these places where drug possession and consumption are condoned. That would set us on the road to a sort of selective decriminalisation.” Absolutely Douglas, because cultures of condonement for drug use should only apply to Oxford colleges, Fleet Street parties, big corporates, and toilets in the House of Commons.
Ross has also attacked the Scottish Government’s naloxone programme, which provided funding to embed the medicine in the NHS and across the wider community. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist. When injected, it can rapidly reverse the effects of an overdose. In practice, it can save a life. For Ross, however, funding wider public provision of this life-saving treatment isn’t “ambitious” enough. We should “enforce the law” instead, he says.
I don’t blame anyone for feeling exhausted by these debates, angry about the terrible tally of people killed in this country by the drugs they take and the reasons they take them, frustrated by our collective lack of progress and the worsening position, year on year, and the families who suffer as a consequence.
So let’s agree on this can we? Denying reality isn’t “tough.” Blocking harm reduction measures which have proven effectiveness isn’t “tough.” Maintaining a criminal justice system for other people’s children, while you minimise and excuse your own youthful dalliances is not “tough.” It’s just murderous hypocrisy.