VICE U.K. originally published this article.
In a baffling start to the 2019 Tory [Conservative Party] race, early June saw a bunch of aspiring Prime Ministers desperate to tell the world about their history of illegal drug use.
There was the revelation that Michael Gove [the Secretary of State, Food, and Rural Affairs of the United Kingdom] had, in a private meeting back in 2016, admitted to snorting cocaine "on several occasions" before being elected to Parliament. Rory Stewart [Secretary of State for International Development of the United Kingdom] admitted to smoking opium while pottering around Iran, while Dominic Raab said he'd smoked weed as a student at Oxford. Jeremy Hunt [Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs] drank a cannabis milkshake while backpacking in India; Andrea Leadsom smoked a spliff in college; Boris Johnson had previously admitted to smoking cannabis and doing a solitary line of coke in his youth.
Unsurprisingly, accusations of rampant hypocrisy flooded in. The fact that the very politicians responsible for maintaining a system that criminalizes drugs and drug users had been at it themselves shows a clear double standard. It wasn't a surprise, of course—nobody was under any illusion that these men and women hadn't sampled illegal drugs before. It was simply a reminder that there's a reason politicians allow the failing war on drugs to continue: They don't personally need to deal with the consequences.
Another thing about these recent admissions is that they were all historical. I wanted to find out what the current situation is like, so I headed to Westminster on Thursday of last week with a handful of cocaine test kits—swabs that turn blue when they come into contact with the drug—to see if those working in the corridors of power are any better today at practicing what they preach.
First up, Norman Shaw North—a building full of MPs' offices. With the help of a friend with a pass, I made my way in and randomly picked a men's bathroom on the third floor.
The tests are simple: unseal the pale pink wipe and rub it on your chosen surface; if there are traces of cocaine present, it'll turn blue. The fact the wipe turned blue after I ran it across the surfaces by the sink showed cocaine was clearly present.
Leaving the bathroom, I passed the offices of Stephen Crabb, a Tory MP who was briefly Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2016. Of course, plenty of MPs, aides and their visitors will use these bathrooms—there's no suggestion that what I found had anything to do with Stephen Crabb.
On another floor, I dipped into a second bathroom, this time near the office of Michael Fallon MP (again, there's no suggestion that what I found had anything to do with Mr. Fallon). A wipe again revealed the presence of cocaine, although this time it was a little less concentrated.
Aware that any security staff watching me on security cameras might by this stage be getting a little suspicious, or worried for my health, I made my way to a newer part of the complex, still full of offices. I tried another bathroom, this time near Boris Johnson's base, but found nothing. The disabled bathrooms by Diane Abbott's office also came up clean.
Next, I headed to The Woolsack, previously a Sports and Social Club Bar, one of several bars in the Palace of Westminster and a favorite hangout of young aides and older pass holders. I locked myself in the disabled toilet by the entrance, which stank of cleaning product, and got to testing. Despite the bleach in the air, my swab still showed a small trace of cocaine.
From The Woolsack I made the short walk to the bathrooms opposite the Strangers' Bar, a venue only accessible to MPs, their invited guests, high ranking public officials, and accredited parliamentary journalists. There, I found a huge amount of cocaine residue—so much so that a good deal of the swab turned blue.
In total, I tested nine Parliamentary locations accessible only to pass holders (or their guests) for cocaine. Four came up positive.
Unfortunately, the manufacturers of the wipes, Crackdown Testing, ceased operations between me buying and using them, and no one from the company was available for comment. Instead, I contacted Zoom Testing, a company that sells the "exact same type of wipe" in different packaging.
"Our cocaine wipes are sensitive to trace amounts of cocaine residue left on any surface," a spokesperson explained. "They can detect the presence of cocaine by simply wiping over the suspected surface. If the wipe turns blue, this identifies the presence of the drug and may be sufficient cause for further investigation." The spokesperson added that the trace amounts of cocaine that can be found in the mains water supply are "extremely unlikely" to show up on their swabs.
A Parliamentary spokesperson said: "Parliament takes the issue of substance misuse very seriously and offers a range of welfare and health support services for those who need them. Parliament is a public place and we welcome over a million visitors a year who have access to the facilities. Should drug use be identified in Parliament, appropriate action would be taken."
At home and abroad, the war on drugs is failing, as a major report by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) confirmed last year. Efforts to eliminate the illegal drug market have had little impact on global supplies, and instead had negative consequences on human rights, security, development and health.
In Britain, we're experiencing levels of avoidable drug-related deaths not seen for decades, constituting almost a third of all drug-related deaths in Europe. In Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001, drug deaths, HIV, and hepatitis infections, problematic drug use and drug-related crime and incarceration rates have all decreased.
With evidence like this you'd expect our major political parties to be working to implement widespread reform to drug legislation. Frustratingly, this is not the case. At the last Tory conference, members were promised a crackdown on middle-class drug users—a group some critics have argued is just a scapegoat for a government that has no handle on drugs policy. Labour, meanwhile, made noises in July of 2018 about shifting their position to a more progressive place, but have since gone quiet.
Speaking to a number of Parliamentary insiders, it would appear that little concern is given to drugs policy either way.
"It's a known thing [that drug use] happens in offices," one staffer told me.
"I've actually never witnessed anyone physically take any drugs while on the estate," another explained, "but it's a relatively common occurrence to see people—particularly MPs' staff, particularly Tories—who are clearly messed up."
"For what it's worth, I don't think it's the case that drug taking is more common among Tory staffers than anyone else generally," he added. "They're just the ones who don't seem to be fazed."
Others I spoke to said they had personally never seen any drug use in Parliament, or any evidence of it.
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