Christina Patterson: End these double standards on drugs


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Sometimes, it would be interesting to know what went on in a politician's head. It would be interesting to know, for example, how the Chancellor of the Exchequer felt on Monday, when he was making announcements about banking reform, and other people were making announcements about his relationship with a woman who called herself "Mistress Pain". It would be interesting to know what he thought when he heard Mistress Pain, whose real name is Natalie Rowe, say in an interview on Australian TV that he was "very intrigued" by her work as a dominatrix, and that their relationship was "more than friendship".

It's possible that he wished, for example, that she hadn't mentioned the paddles, and whips, and chains, and handcuffs that she said he and his friends had found "quite amusing". It's possible he thought that a woman who used to run an "escort agency" which offered prostitutes for £350 per hour, wasn't really the kind of person he wanted to be giving an interview about him when he was trying to keep the markets steady.

It's more than possible – it is, in fact, quite likely – that when she talked about the parties they both used to go to, and how there was "definitely" cocaine there, and how he took it "on a regular basis", and that there were quite a lot of witnesses, he had that horrible feeling you get when you've done something you really wish you hadn't. It's possible that what he wished he hadn't done was ever have any kind of friendship with someone who was going to give an interview about it on Australian TV. And that he thought about the story she'd sold to the Daily Mirror six years ago, which also appeared in the News of the World, and couldn't believe he was having to say all over again that what she was saying wasn't true.

It's possible that when she said that she had told him that she would have "all the dirty goods" on him when he was prime minister, and that he had "laughed" and taken "a big fat line of cocaine", he couldn't believe that someone would tell such a terrible lie. But it's also possible that when he said he never took cocaine at any of those parties, he didn't actually mean that he never took cocaine at any of those parties. It's possible that what he meant was that he had taken cocaine a few times, and maybe even a lot of times, and quite enjoyed it, but that now he was a politician he couldn't say so.

And it's also possible that when he had that funny feeling in his stomach – the one you get when you've done something you really wish you hadn't – the thing he regretted doing wasn't having the friendship, or even taking the cocaine. It's possible that what he regretted was being very, very clear that he hadn't taken the cocaine. And that when, a year after the story about the dominatrix first appeared, he heard that an American presidential candidate called Barack Obama had told a group of editors that "of course" he inhaled the marijuana he'd smoked at school, because "that was the point", and when he read, or heard, that Obama had also admitted to using cocaine, he wished that he had said that, too. And wished it again when he heard a Tory MP called Louise Mensch saying in July that it was "highly probable" that she had taken drugs with Nigel Kennedy when she was young. But knew that he couldn't say it now without saying that he had lied before.

Whatever George Osborne may have thought when he heard Natalie Rowe talking about whips, and paddles, and a future Chancellor taking cocaine, it probably wasn't that the time had come for politicians to come clean. That the time had come, in fact, for politicians not just to say which drugs they may, or may not, have tried at school, or university, or parties, but also to say that their policies relating to drugs don't work. And that if something doesn't work – if something is, in fact, in such a mess that even prisons are full of the thing that's meant to be illegal – then what you should do is try something different.

George Osborne has a lot of things on his plate at the moment, so you can see why he might not feel that this was the right moment to take on the findings of a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which came out in June. You can also see, when you see the people behind the report, why this is a shame. They include the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Switzerland, the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, the former US Secretary of State, George Shultz, and the current Prime Minister of Greece. And what all these people say is that tough laws on drugs have failed.

We already know that the drugs that do the most harm in this country are the ones that are legal. They are also the drugs – alcohol and tobacco - that this government is least keen to control. In a study last year based on the overall dangers to the individual and society led by the former government drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, alcohol scored 72 out of 100 for danger, compared to 55 for heroin and 54 for crack. Cocaine scored 27, and ecstasy, which is still a class A drug, nine.

It is, of course, quite hard to get accurate statistics on the use of illegal drugs, since even people who aren't the Chancellor of the Exchequer tend, when they're asked about it, to be a bit coy. But all the evidence indicates that, since the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971 introduced classifications for drugs, and made the possession and supply of class A and B drugs illegal, drug use in this country has gone up. In Portugal, on the other hand, which in 2001 abolished all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, it has dropped.

You can understand why politicians aren't rushing to confess that they took, and maybe even liked, cannabis or cocaine. It's not so easy to be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime, when one of those causes turns out to be you. But people are being murdered for the profits of that crime, and fewer people would be murdered if supplying some drugs wasn't a crime, and fewer people would be stealing if there was a legal way to get the next fix.

Drugs, like stories about Tory politicians and dominatrixes, will always be with us. If we can't get rid of them, we can find ways of reducing their harm. Only a masochistic society wouldn't.