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Sunday, 16 January, 2000, 18:47 GMT
Politicians feel the heat over drugs

Confessing drug use can be a double-edged sword
by BBC News Online's Matthew Davis

Mo Mowlam's revelations about her experiment with cannabis are a gift to the headline writers, for whom drugs and politics have been an explosive combination.

But it is only the latest in a series of frank admissions by public figures.

Bill Clinton did not inhale
Drug czar Keith Hellawell said on Sunday that he would be "very surprised" if a substantial proportion of Parliament's 659 MPs had not tried soft drugs before entering public office.

However the stigma attached to narcotics makes a public admission a tortuous ordeal that has every chance of back-firing, even if many members of the public take a more tolerant view than that expressed in outraged media headlines.

King of the confessor-politicians over drug use is without doubt Bill Clinton, who famously said he did not inhale the marijuana he tried as a student at Oxford University.

Whether his reluctance to partake of an experimental drag made the President seem more responsible, or to some, more boring, is a matter still under debate.

George Bush: "Mistakes" as younger man
More recently Republican presidential front-runner George W Bush has been dogged with questions over whether he ever took drugs, and in particular, cocaine.

The son of former President George Bush has stopped short of saying whether he had actually taken any illegal drugs.

But he admitted he had "made some mistakes" more than 20 years ago.

The Associated Press also reported that both Democratic presidential hopefuls - Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley - had followed in the President's footsteps and admitted trying marijuana.

In Britain when Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy last year confirmed that he wanted to reopen the debate on the legalisation of drugs, he entered an area of debate many politicians consider too hot to handle.

The fear of being branded weak on the drugs question has prevented many others from raising the public discussion beyond a demand for greater criminal sanctions.

In 1998 Tory MP David Prior - son of former cabinet minister James (now Lord) Prior - confessed he had smoked cannabis as a young man.

The North Norfolk MP emerged relatively unscathed from his attempt to down play his drug use as a natural life experience.

He wrote at the time: "I associate my experience with drugs (soft ones) not with Mick Jagger or Aldous Huxley but with passing my law degree and working in a bank."

Bad advice: Brian Harvey
A survey of the House's 243 newly-elected MPs suggested he was not the only member to have done so.

Some 22.5% of the intake - in a secret vote - said they had tried illegal drugs.

But anyone in a position of influence or responsibility who is considering an admission of drugs use must take care to avoid appearing to legitimise illegal behaviour, or risk political and media anger.

The denial of enjoyment, or the assertion that it was a one-off, is as important as the confession itself.

This is one area where confessed-politicians have the upper hand on their celebrity peers.

Come-clean MPs would do well to avoid the confessional style of pop star Brian Harvey, of East 17.

An idol to thousands of teenage girls, Harvey was famously kicked out of the band after admitting taking 12 Ecstasy tablets on one wild night.

He added to his problems by philosophising that the drug "made people better".

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See also:

19 Aug 99 | Americas
Bush quizzed about drugs
15 Aug 99 | UK Politics
Kennedy in cannabis call
25 Aug 99 | Rugby Union
Dallaglio fined, but no ban
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