Politicians, drugs, and the past – Should they admit to it, and does it matter?

July 18, 2012, 1:10 PM GMT+0

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.

VIEWPOINT - Politicians should admit to having taken drugs in the past

“It's going to come out anyway, it always does. So they can either admit to it upfront or make themselves look like utter hypocrites when it comes out. Most people have dabbled in their youth, particularly if they went to uni, and not admitting it makes them look like preachy fuddy duddies that have never lived and are increasingly out of touchK Kay, Lockerbie

We will continue to have a 'drug problem' in this country until we start giving young people truth and facts about each drug discussed, including alcohol, instead of blanket platitudes that bear no resemblance to the truthAnon

I think they should admit to it if asked – it makes them appear more human. I've never taken illegal drugs, but I know plenty of people who have taken them recreationally occasionally and they're not bad people, neither are they addicted. Much better to be like President Obama and say, ‘Yes, they smoked cannabis and inhaled’ – that was the point – than lie about it. You don't condemn someone for admitting to a minor indiscretion, you do condemn people for lyingAnon

Taking drugs is an illegal activity and politicians are elected to represent their constituencies, so if there has been such behaviour on their part, it is best to be as honest as possible about it at the earliest stageOsmi, Manchester

They are all too keen to present a holier than thou appearance and suggest how the public should behave when living to double standards. Honesty is the best policy to live byTerry, Wales

It shows they are human and make mistakes. It also shows that there is life after drugs, being in positions of power and responsibilityMatt, Reading

VIEWPOINT - Politicians should decide for themselves whether to admit past drug use

Provided that they are fit, healthy, and not addicted to anything while in office, this makes little difference to their policiesAnon

Unless they are still using hard drugs, frankly I think it's none of my business. A person's habits are only of any importance if they affect the job they are doing now. It isn't our job to judge their former private lives, only how they do their present job running the country” Anon

It was their past, if they wish to tell the public that is their choice – if they would like it not to be known, it should stay that way. A person's experiences with drugs can be very personal, and if they wish people to respect their privacy they should. They may be politicians, but they should have the same human rights as the rest of usMike S, Scotland

The past is another country, and we all learn from our past experiences. Anyone who cannot learn from past experience is unfit to be an MP. The person who never made a mistake never made anythingGraham H, Gwynedd

I simply don't care. It's irrelevant. Although I would be extremely suspicious of any politician who said they had never taken drugs. It implies they lack experience of lifeAnon

“A rather large number of people will at some point take an illegal drug even if it was only ‘to try’, so if it was 20 years in the past I don't really think there is any particular need to admit to taking drugs. However, if they have done drugs whilst in parliament I think they should have to in the matter of public interestAnon

VIEWPOINT - Politicians should not admit to having taken drugs in the past

It serves no purpose. There is no need to let the next generation feel that it’s acceptable and all the best people have done itMaggie, Wales

“It's history and as long as they are not taking it now then it is of no consequence to the job they are undertaking now. It just gives the media a reason to judge them over something they used to do, which has no relevance to their capabilities to do their job nowAnon

It could make susceptible individuals believe that it is acceptable or safe to take drugs for recreational purposes, even if the MP is now saying it is not acceptable and not safeAnon

It gives the impression that taking drugs is acceptable and done by ‘normal’ people, even if they say regret itFilipe A, London

If it was before they sought election, and has not continued, they should have the right to remain silent about it unless they had received a criminal record as a result of their activity” Sue S, Leicester

I don't really want to know what they did in their distant past. I am more concerned about what they are doing nowCraig, Basildon

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

Quite a lot of people ‘experiment’ with drugs when they are younger, so it's not a problem. Politicians are also normal peopleAnon

If they have been working diligently and committedly on our behalf it shouldn't matter too muchPam W, Wales

They have probably done many other more stupid things than trying a bit of grass since their misspent youth, and they aren't subjected to public catechism about those. Yes, drugs are stupid and dangerous. But they are also a bit of a modern witch-hunt” Anon

We've all done things we shouldn't – some large, some small. I'm more interested in what my MP is doing now than what he did 20 years agoAnon

I'm interested in the opinions of my MP. Do they coincide with mine? So many people have taken drugs it's barely relevant. More to the point is whether he is taking drugs or drinking excessively now, because that might impede his decision makingIslofts, Somerset

People do things for many different reasons, some things people do they regret and learn from. I think many people take drugs especially when they are young but it doesn't mean they won't become intelligent, successful people, it just means they will have had experience of this aspect of life that other MPs may not have. I think it would only be a problem if the drug taking was current or very recent” Anon

VIEWPOINT - I would think more of my local MP for admitting to have taken drugs in the past

It would show they were honest, brave and had actually lived in the real worldBrenda B, Newcastle upon Tyne

I would think my MP was honest – a rarity nowadays! MPs seem to go to so much effort to pretend they are something they are not to the public so it would make a change for an MP to have the guts to admit to such a thing and I would respect thatNoreen, London

I know it would cost them to make that admission, and I would think if they are able to be honest with me about that they would be honest about other thingsAnon

I would think they are perfectly normal people with vulnerabilities like the rest of us and I like politicians to have a wide range of experiencesLinda S

How can we trust someone who grew up in the 50s and 60s and hasn't at least had a toke of weed? Someone like that never had a sense of adventure or a social lifeAnon

Most people I know who are interesting or creative have at some point experimented with drugs. I also feel they would be more likely to have lived a littleAnya, Devon

VIEWPOINT - I would think less of my local MP for admitting to have taken drugs in the past

If they have committed this illegal behaviour what else have they done, and are they really the right person to be representing meLouise H, Kent

It would make me view them as weak somehow. They couldn't cope with stress or pressure and turned to stimulants or they gave in to peer pressure. Or, there is this part of me that thinks some politicians admit to these things out of some sad attempt to appear cool and ‘down with the youth’” Yvonne

It does depend on the level of drug taking. Heavy or long term use would indicate a level of weakness or wilfulness that I would see as detrimental to their judgement. A one off experiment would indicate curiosity, but the fact that they stopped there would indicate common senseDavid, Cambridge

Assuming this refers to illegal drugs, they are admitting to having broken the laws they now impose on the rest of usAnon

Drug use reduces brain power, shows a weakness in character and addicts can be dishonest and untrustworthyAnon

I would think less of them if it was Class A drugs, as use of these kinds of drugs indicates a more reckless and selfish personality, one who is more likely to be addictive and untrustworthy and thus not suitable for an elected position of powerLuke S, London

Do politicians have duty to disclose whether they’ve taken drugs in the past? Give your view below.