Kojo Koram is a lecturer in law at Birbeck College at the University of London. He is the editor of “The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line.”
The United Kingdom is gripped by the strange sight of multiple contenders for prime minister lining up to confess their past drug use.
The most prominent confession has come from Michael Gove, who recently admitted that he used cocaine while working as a young journalist. Gove’s confession came just after another Conservative competitor, Rory Stewart, admitted that he experimented with opium while in Iran.
Along with further confessions of drug use by Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt, and allusions by apparent front-runner Boris Johnson himself to experimenting with drugs, it seems likely that the next British prime minister will be a new member of a growing group of heads of states — including former prime minister David Cameron and former U.S. president Barack Obama — who have admitted to drug use before presiding over governments that continue to pursue punitive drug policies.
Many have been quick to dismiss these stories as childhood indiscretions with little bearing on the current race. But that misses the point. It’s not just about campaign teams leaking stories about each other to sway public opinion, or even a covert mission to make drugs unfashionable by associating them with old conservatives. The real story is that so many leaders in the British government were able to enjoy consequence-free, youthful drug transgressions as a result of the deep hypocrisy in the country’s drug laws.
Though the possession and supplying of drugs are illegal throughout Britain, inequalities in where the focus of drug policing is applied explains why future Conservative Party politicians are able to explore drug use during university or on their travels: because they know they are unlikely to be targets of suspicion.
A common misconception on both sides of the Atlantic holds that the United Kingdom is not burdened with racial problems as the United States is. But when it comes to drug policing, Britain carries some of the same inequalities that are evident in the American “war on drugs,” with black people being arrested for drug offenses at an estimated six times the rate of white people.
In Britain, as in the United States, there are huge discrepancies in terms of which communities bear the brunt of drug policing. Though black people are reported to use drugs significantly less than white people, according to a 2013 report, they are disproportionately likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, charged if drugs are found and face prison time for drug offenses.
These inequalities are a large reason these laws have been able to survive for so long, despite the evidence showing that they are counterproductive and harmful. Quite simply, the communities that are most affected by punitive drug policing are not the same communities that are expected to produce a future Conservative prime minister. If the Royal Ascot faced the same levels of stop-and-search as the Notting Hill Carnival, drug-law reform would likely be the first thing on the Tory manifesto at the next election.
But instead of reevaluating our drug laws based on their own experiences or considering how their own privilege has shielded them from lasting repercussions, the Conservative politicians confessing to drug use appear only too happy to double down on punitive drug policies. When he was education secretary, Gove oversaw lifetime bans for teachers who picked up drug convictions. Under his watch, teachers lost their entire careers for having been caught in possession of cocaine, the same drug he now admits to having used himself on “several occasions.” McVey and Raab, meanwhile, have publicly called for greater stop-and-search powers, and Johnson recently wrote an article calling for stronger punishment for drug dealers.
Yet nearly 1 in 5 of all remand prisoners in the country are being held for drug-related offenses already. The next prime minister could do a great deal to improve lives by putting drug-policy reform firmly on the political agenda. Britain is far behind Canada, New Zealand and even sections of the United States in discussing and implementing drug-policy reform. Gove and his colleagues should use this moment to open up the conversation about drug control to see which reforms are actually working throughout the world, rather than just self-flagellate over how bad they feel for their past mistakes before further criminalizing drugs in the future.
Unfortunately, this would require the kind of political courage sorely lacking in Westminster. For as long as future prime ministers are confident that they can do as they wish when they are young because drug policing is something that happens to other, less privileged people, nothing is likely to change.