An upside of the rolling programme of hustings in the Conservative leadership contest is that it forces the candidates to think on their feet and come up with offers for the whole country, rather than just the Party’s heartlands.
One downside of this programme is that it forces candidates to think on their feet, in an environment that rewards catering to the particular outlook – one hesitates to say ‘prejudices’ – of Tory activists.
That’s how you end up with Rishi Sunak describing himself as a pragmatic candidate at the same time as denying that recreational drugs exist. To which all one can say is… what?
In fairness, this is in part down to a sympathetic but flawed question from the audience. A woman wanted to know what Sunak would do to help people and families suffering the many negative side-effects of the drugs trade, which is a very good question. But she framed this by calling for a ban on the term ‘recreational drugs’.
This latter is a nonsense proposition. Whether or not one approves of them, it is simply a fact that drugs are used recreationally by a lot of people. Yet no politician running to lead the Conservatives can say that to a room full of party activists, and so instead the former chancellor replied with this:
“Drugs are horrific. There is nothing recreational about them. I have never taken them and I will be incredibly tough on anyone who does.”
What this means in practice is that the Government should continue to stick to broadly the same failing formula which does so much to contribute to the very real harms and evils the woman in the audience is so rightly concerned about.
A better answer might have made the case that ‘drugs’ is pretty much a meaningless word. It covers far too broad a range of substances, all with different effects, dangers, consumer bases and black market footprints, to be a useful basis for monolithic policy.
Illegal narcotics can have horrific, life-destroying consequences. The illegal trade also brings a lot of evils in its train. But it is facile to pretend, as the useless category ‘Class A’ does, that ecstasy poses the same risk to the taker or to society as heroin, or that dabblers with magic mushrooms are supporting the same blood-soaked supply chain as cocaine users.
Sunak, a self-styled pragmatist, might also have pointed out that a lot of the social costs of the drugs trade arise from that trade being in criminal hands, and that since demand has stubbornly resisted decades of prohibitionary pressure it might be better to look – on a case-by-case basis – at catering to that demand through regulated, legal supply chains that don’t employ children or gangsters.
With an eye on a justice system creaking under a huge courts backlog and police forces which have stopped investigating burglaries, he might also have pointed out that a crackdown on recreational users – who exist, remember – would be a bad use of scarce resources from the perspective of protecting people from actual harm.
In an age of spiralling costs and decaying public services, politicians are going to have to get a lot better at focusing on where they can make the most difference. In that regard, here’s an interesting titbit from the Times, reporting the last time this Government floated a crackdown on users of Class A drugs:
“There are also more than 300,000 heroin and crack addicts in England who between them are responsible for nearly half of acquisitive crime, and drugs drive nearly half of all homicides.”
For anyone looking to be tough on drugs whilst cracking down on its broader societal harms, that’s an obvious starting point for a worthwhile strategy – one to which performative punishment of people caught with a joint, or couple of pills on a Friday night, contributes nothing and detracts much.
But alas, we are not yet in a place where even the candidate trying to make telling hard truths his thing can admit any of this.