Donald Macintyre's Sketch: If the Mail man won't admit to drug use, should Nick Clegg?


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Indy Politics

At his drugs policy launch with Sir Richard Branson, Nick Clegg complained that he had had several private expressions of support for decriminalisation from senior figures in what he called “the mainstream parties”.

Whether or not this was a Freudian slip, it seemed to reflect the Lib Dems’ five per cent rating in today’s Sun.

Not that he had much against The Sun, which recently called for a rethink on drugs policy after recording that 71 per cent of people think that the “war of drugs” has failed. “They don’t usually praise me, but I’ll praise The Sun,” he said modestly.

There were different nuances, of course. While Clegg said he was “pro-reform” because he was “anti-drugs”, Branson seemed to suggest at one point that even skunk – which experts have recently linked strongly to mental illness – was only slightly worse than alcohol in the proportion of users who ended up with a “problem” – three per cent in the case of alcohol.

Not every paper is as benign about reform as The Sun, of course.

Towards the end, the man from The Daily Mail, which it’s fair to say is not in the liberal vanguard on the drugs issue, asked Clegg the nevertheless reasonable question of whether he expected drug use to increase as a result of decriminalisation.

No, said Clegg, all the evidence was that “treating” drug users rather than prosecuting led to a reduction. And after drug use was decriminalised in Portugal, numbers of HIV-Aids cases because of contaminated syringe use had gone “off the cliff”.

What’s more, added Branson, under such a regime, Daily Mail readers would find their homes less likely to be broken into by addicts desperate to finance their next fix.

At this point Branson, who has made no secret of his past recreational drug use, asked the Mail man Jason Groves to appreciative titters from the high-minded and impeccably liberal/professional audience: “Jason, have you ever smoked a spliff?”

Well, said Groves, quick-wittedly robust, that was “probably” none of Branson’s business, but he had certainly been deterred in his youth by the criminal sanction.

Ah, exclaimed Clegg shamelessly pandering to his by now – mainly – delighted audience: “He does not deny that he did! The Daily Mail does not deny it.”

This is all very well but Clegg hasn’t exactly clarified his own position, having told Piers Morgan in a July 2010 GQ interview that “I don’t think what I did as a teenager is relevant to my capacity to lead my party”.

He does not deny that he did, in other words. The Deputy Prime Minister does not deny it! Your correspondent (who – full disclosure – has “smoked a spliff” in his time) put up his hand to ask Clegg the very question Branson had asked Groves, but was sadly not called.

Still, there should be plenty more opportunities between now and 7 May.