Politicians, drugs, and the past – Should they admit to it, and does it matter?
by Harris MacLeod in Politics Lab
Wed July 18, 2:10 p.m. BST
It was a week for speaking frankly: Chuka Ummuna, Labour's shadow business secretary, recently admitted to smoking marijuana as a teenager, then a few days later, while appearing on BBC's Question Time, Conservative backbencher Louise Mensch declared that taking Class A drugs in her youth had “messed with my brain”.
In YouGov’s Politics Lab we asked your view – Should politicians admit to taking drugs if they have done so in the past, or do they have no such obligation?
We also asked as a follow up, for participants to imagine what their reaction would be if their local MP admitted to having taken drugs in the past. To what extent would it have a bearing on their opinion of them, if any?
Read what our panellists had to say below.
We started the discussion by asking those who took part what the word ‘drug’ means to you. Your views on the term are represented in Wordle-form:
Q: Generally speaking, do you think politicians should or should not admit to taking drugs if they have done so in the past?
The highest proportion of those who took part in the discussion said that politicians should admit to having taken drugs in the past in the instance of them doing so.
- For those of you who were of this view, the reason you cited most for why politicians should admit to having taken drugs in the past is that it would make them seem more “human”.
- For many of you, lying about past drug use was a more grave offence for a politician than the act of taking drugs itself.
- Many of you described taking drugs as “normal”, especially amongst students and young people, and said you would respect a politician who was open and honest about their past.
- Participants were critical of what they perceived as “hypocrisy” in politics, and argued that if more politicians admitted to having taken drugs it would reduce social stigma around narcotics and foster a more informed and intelligent debate about drugs policy, as well as showing people that taking drugs does not necessarily preclude someone from becoming successful.
The second highest proportion of participants said they were not interested in whether politicians have taken drugs in the past.
- Those who held this view were generally quite liberal about the issue of past drug use, and said they were only interested in what politicians did today, not what they did before they were elected.
- You argued that politicians were entitled to a personal life before entering politics, and that it should be up to them whether to discuss their past drug use or not.
- Many of you said that dabbling in recreational drugs was fairly widespread among the general population, and that life experiences are what make people (including MPs) who they are.
And thirdly, the smallest proportion of those who took part in the discussion said that politicians should not admit to having taken drugs in the past.
- Participants who felt that politicians should not discuss their past drug use argued that doing so would set a bad example for young people, and contribute to normalising drug use in the eyes of the public.
- They were also of the view that politicians are as much entitled to a private life – including “youthful mistakes” – as anyone else, and that they are entitled to keep details of their past lives private.
Q: Imagine your local MP has admitted that they took drugs in the past. To what extent, if any, would it have a bearing on what you think of them?
An overwhelmingly high proportion of those who participated in the discussion said that their local MP admitting to having taken drugs in the past would have no bearing on what they thought of them.
- Those of you who were of this view said that whether or not their local MP took drugs in the past is “irrelevant” as far as they were concerned.
- Many said that the “the past is the past” and expressed a high degree of tolerance for people “experimenting” and “making mistakes” in their youth.
- Participants said they would judge their local MP based on their current behaviour, and as long as their MP was not still taking drugs, than an admission of past drug use would not matter.
The second highest proportion of participants said they would in fact think more of their local MP if they admitted to having taken drugs in the past.
- Those who said they would think more of their local MP for having admitted to taking drugs in the past said that doing so would take honesty, integrity and courage.
- Participants said it would make their MP seem more “human” by giving a glimpse into their true character, and also demonstrate willingness to discuss “real issues”.
- Generally, they felt that experimentation with drugs was part of life for many people, including those who go on to become politicians.
A small proportion of participants said they would think less of their local MP for admitting to having taken drugs in the past.
- The overarching view was that past drug taking indicated a fundamental “weakness of character” that should render someone unfit for public office.
- You pointed out that drug taking is “illegal”, and argued that someone who has broken the law in the past should not get to become a lawmaker.
VIEWPOINT - Whether my local MP took drugs in the past would have no bearing on what I thought of them
Do politicians have duty to disclose whether they’ve taken drugs in the past? Give your view below.