Politicians take drugs too

Politicians’ new willingness to admit drug use highlights not only the hypocrisy of current drug law, but also the reality of an unjust society where some individuals are punished for using illicit drugs while others can use them with relative impunity.

In the United States some of the most important political figures in recent years have admitted drug use and Barack Obama's words describing his own dabbling with drugs in his youth would resonate with many young people today. “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it…I inhaled frequently that was the point”. Ironically the US is also the only democracy in the world where people who have served criminal sentences can lose their right to vote indefinitely. This sincerity about drug use also stretches to the US judicial system. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once said “I was smart enough to use pot without getting caught, and now I’m on the Supreme Court. If you were stupid enough to get caught, that’s your problem, your appeal is denied.” Despite presidential openness about drug use the majority of state and federal laws regarding narcotics are still relatively strict and can have harsh legal consequences.

The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 7.2 million people behind bars, on probation or on parole at the end of 2007. Drug offenders account for 2 million of that figure and more people are in prison for drug offences in the United States than are incarcerated in the whole of Western Europe. A study released in 2008 states that drug arrests in New York for marijuana use between 1998 and 2007 have increased eight times compared to the arrests between 1988 and 1997. A large part of these arrests would have taken place under the administration of Mayor Bloomberg who assumed office in 2002. When Mr Bloomberg was asked during the 2001 presidential campaign if he had tried marijuana he smugly replied, “You bet I did and I enjoyed it”.

George W. Bush has never been the greatest role model but when he talks about his own experiences with marijuana he states “I wouldn’t answer the marijuana questions; You know why?  Because I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried”. He has made it clear to the US public that he repents any previous lifestyle choices and during his presidency he agreed a $1.4bn support package to combat organized crime in Mexico and Central America where marijuana trafficking has traditionally been a fundamental profit generator. Bill Clinton has also infamously tried drugs although without inhaling. However during his presidency he temporarily waived human rights conditions attached to the Plan Colombia anti-drug program arguing that national security from the drug threat was more important.

Across the pond in Britain these double standards continue. A rising prison population has become a big political issue and the figure for people imprisoned for drug offences has risen faster than any other group. Earlier in the year ministers went against the recommendations of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and reclassified cannabis from class C to class B, increasing the maximum prison term from two years to five years. Jacqui Smith who was then Home Secretary was behind the decision to reclassify the drug, has herself admitted smoking cannabis while at university. Ms Smith argued that the increase in potency of cannabis was the reason for the reclassification.

In the UK the implementation of drug law enforcement still remains racially biased as people of Black-African or African-Caribbean origin are more likely to be prosecuted for a drug offence and are more likely to receive a custodial sentence. There is currently a higher proportion of black people incarcerated for drug offences (28%) than white people (13%) despite the fact that per-capita drug-use is lower in the black community than in the white community. This argument is supported by a report that was released last week by the Human Genetics Commission stated that over three quarters of black men between the age of 18 to 35 have their DNA profiles on the national database.

The figures for females jailed for drug offences is much higher than males and according to a study enacted in 2007 30% of female prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences. The figure for foreign national female prisoners accused of drug offences is even higher at 8 out of 10. A large percentage of these would be categorised as drug mules, vulnerable women with no previous offences from some of the poorest countries in the world who are coerced into putting their lives at risk to transport relatively small amounts of drugs. Although now due to charity campaigning sentences for drug mules have been significantly reduced some women have received sentences of up to 15 years imprisonment.
These contrasting principals are not only confined to Britain and the US. Italian politician Gianfranco Fini, who is the favourite to take over from the disgraced Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has admitted that he was once “stoned for two days in Jamaica”. Lucky for him that he decided to indulge himself outside of Italy as there have been cases of people arrested for drug possession being beaten to death in Italian prisons. The Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has also admitted that he was no angel in his youth. Nevertheless Poland still treats possession of even the smallest quantities of drugs as a serious criminal offense and 60% of people sentenced for possession are cannabis users.

Although politicians tend to be hypocritical by their very nature, it seems that not any more is it political suicide to admit drug use. This highlights the fact that drugs are seen as a problem by the legal system and not by the public. In a recent poll 52% of a sample of 1,292 UK voters thought that either some or all currently illegal drugs should be legalised. Perhaps David Cameron could gain some crucial votes by shedding some light on a suspected sighting of him at Acid House Sunrise 1988.

Release is an organisation that devotes a large amount of time providing legal advice and arranging legal representation for the individuals in society who are reprimanded for drug offences. They have started this campaign to let the world know that the people at the top who make the laws are guilty of the same crimes that the people at the bottom are being punished for.