Rory Stewart’s opium usage exposes the madness of British drugs policy

No one in politics thinks Rory Stewart should go to prison for taking opium – yet both major parties’ manifestos say that he should. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Fifteen years ago, Rory Stewart took opium. Stewart inspires a range of opinions at Westminster but I am yet to meet anyone who thinks that it would be better if he had as a result spent seven years in prison at the taxpayer’s expense and found it astonishingly difficult to secure work in anything other than low-paid, insecure jobs or crime.

This is also not the view held by British law enforcement, where charges for possession are brought with decreasing frequency and selectivity.

Yet there is one place where the belief that Stewart ought to have been sent to prison is still alive and kicking: the manifestos of our two major political parties.

The formal position of the government is to continue the disastrous war on drugs, even though informally, British police at street level pursue a slightly more sensible approach. 

The evidence is clear: countries that pursue decriminalisation and legalisation enjoy plummeting death rates and lower uptakes of drugs. Across the democratic world, governments have done a far better and less bloody job of discouraging the reckless legal consumption of cigarettes and alcohol than they have in stemming the tide of money to criminal gangs, human trafficking and general misery caused by the prohibition of drugs.

All things considered, this ought to be a moment when British politics enters a more sensible and humane position on drugs policy. A majority of the public supports legalisation of cannabis and of magic mushrooms. The Sun newspaper has backed the legalisation of cannabis. The previous Conservative prime minister is known to have held more evidence-based views on drugs than the ones he pursued in office, while the current Justice Secretary, David Gauke, is setting out a more evidence-based and effective approach on sentencing and rehabilitation than we’ve seen in decades. On the Labour side, the party is led from its left flank and is known to be privately open to a rethink. 

There is a political movement to be seized by the political class, but it hasn’t been.

Gauke, one of the government’s most effective cabinet ministers, has few champions for what he is doing in the press. He has no clamour to run for the party’s leadership and may well be replaced by the next leader by someone more inclined to pander to the traditional values – or rather, given where public opinion actually is on the issue, perceived traditional values – of middle England.

Meanwhile, Labour’s 2017 manifesto contains just one mention of the word “drugs” – alongside a commitment to hire more border guards. Under Corbyn, most in connection with the project will privately concede that their drugs policy is an embarrassment and that change is round the corner. Change has been round the corner for two years now.

If the promised change ever arrives, politicians may find that they missed the opportunity to alter the debate on drugs and rehabilitation when they had willing supporters on their side.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.