There are two public settings in which you might expect someone to freely admit to taking illegal drugs. The first is an ex-con explaining why they ended up in prison and can now only find employment that is insecure, poorly paid or in the criminal economy. The second, it turns out, is in the Conservative leadership election.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has admitted to drinking a lassi laced with cannabis, while Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, revealed that he smoked opium in Iran while working as a diplomat.
Now Michael Gove has confessed to taking cocaine on several occasions in the 1990s while working as a journalist. Speaking to the Mail, the environment secretary said: “It was a mistake. I look back and think I wish I hadn’t done that.” He added: “All politicians have lives before politics. Certainly when I was working as a journalist I didn’t imagine I would go into politics or public service.”
I can only imagine how miserable a time the 1990s must have been to be on the right, and I can understand how Gove’s thoughts might have turned to chemical release. But we don’t need to imagine to find out how far someone, with a different accent or darker skin, working not at a national newspaper but on a building site or in a restaurant, would get if they tried to explain away their drug usage by saying that they had no plans to go into politics or public service.
Michael Gove is a man who invites a number of opinions, a great deal of them unflattering, even within the Conservative party, but I am yet to meet a Tory MP who sincerely believes that it would have been better for anyone had he spent a decent chunk of the early noughties in prison. Yet the official position of his party, and that of the main opposition, is that it would.
That’s right: it is Tory party policy that they would have been better off if one of their most dynamic administrators and a near permanent presence on the frontbench since his entry into politics had been either imprisoned or working in a minimum wage job. That might be the private view of some teachers and some particularly committed pro-Europeans but it’s an odd look for a party that might yet make him prime minister.
The overwhelming evidence from around the democratic world is that countries which have legalised drugs have seen numbers of drug deaths fall and have taken billions out of the criminal economy. The UK, meanwhile, has enriched violent crooks and established itself as a market leader in drug-related deaths, accounting for 28% of drug deaths across the European Union despite having just 12% of the bloc’s population. On the ground, British law enforcement has largely quietly admitted that our current drugs laws are not fit for purpose and that it only patchily enforces the law as written.
It’s true to say that taking cocaine is a deeply unethical habit: its supply chains, both in the UK and around the world, are mired in violence and exploitation. But the reality is that democratic governments are more effective at persuading their citizens to cut down on legal behaviour that is bad for their health than they are at stopping it through criminalisation. Armed with nothing more than a few posters and leaflets about the benefits of Fairtrade, a handful of ethically conscious local councils and volunteer campaigners have done a better job of cutting down the unethical consumption of coffee than the British government has done in squashing the usage of cocaine with the full might of the state behind it.
The choice, and not only for the Conservatives, but also for Labour, whose manifesto is silent on drugs policy, other than a commitment to hire more border guards to reduce smuggling, is the following. It cannot be right that Michael Gove should face no consequences for his own past actions but that other people have their lives ruined by the war on drugs.
Either draconian punishments for drug users work, or they don’t. The time is well past for our politicians to admit that their biggest mistake is not a line of coke at a party or puff on a pipe at a wedding but the war on drugs.
• Stephen Bush is the political editor for the New Statesman