Pot, pollies and hypocrisy

Politicians nowadays are constantly being asked whether they’ve used marijuana. Anyone who wants to enter politics needs a good answer to the question, and as baby boomers continue to take over our parliaments, the answers keep on becoming more interesting. The so-called baby boomer president, Bill Clinton, famously offered that “I didn’t inhale” excuse, which formed the basis of many a late-night comedy routine, and provided a taste of the amusingly technical justifications to come as the president denied having “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky.

This week, it was a joke by Daniel Johns that set the pot among the pigeons. He made a quip on radio about lying on a bed with Bono and Peter Garrett, listening to the new Silverchair album and smoking a joint. Well, on this evidence, Daniel Johns really should stick to being an ultra-serious young rock-auteur, because jokes aren’t this thing. I’d be surprised if Johns had come up with a single funny thing since he wrote the lyrics to Tomorrow.
The problem with the joke is that it’s far too plausible. Johns was listening to his album with Bono and Garrett earlier in the year, it was only the joint part that was made up. Whereas if I made a joke about the time I was lying on a bed with Robert Manne and John Ralston Saul, discussing my smh.com.au blog while smoking crack, that would be implausible enough to be clearly a joke. (Although, Rob and John, if you’re interested, let me know and we’ll meet up. BYO crack pipe.)
The joke he was aiming at was based around Bono and Garrett being supposedly anti-drug, so of course one wouldn’t share a spliff with them. But they’re still rock stars. And, as we saw with the controversy over Madonna’s involvement with Live Earth, celebrities aren’t necessarily hypocrisy-free. Bono’s an anti-poverty campaigner who’s immensely wealthy, so really, who’d be shocked if be if enjoyed the occasional toke while regularly lecturing the UN on the evils of drugs?
Garrett’s involvement, and subsequent denial, led to every other politician trotting out their own personal drug-use stories. And gee, who’d have thought that Kevin Rudd never would have indulged in marijuana? It’s about as likely as him being seen in public with a hair out of place. The guy’s level of self-control is genuinely terrifying, so I can’t imagine Rudd consuming any substance that would lead to relaxation. Even though Rudd’s obviously doing a much better job, I can’t help but long for the amusing indiscipline of Mark Latham.
Being equally straight-laced, Howard doesn’t use drugs, of course. But imagine my surprise when Nick Minchin confessed to having indulged in the odd spot of whacky baccy in his youth. I’m sorry, Nick Minchin? The ultra-conservative guy who doesn’t believe in compulsory voting or global warming? This is honestly the first time I’ve heard anything vaguely humanising about the former Special Minister of State, a title that made him seem like the Canberra equivalent of Darth Vader. If even a guy like Minchin indulged a little in his youth, surely nearly all of our pollies must have.
Which got me wondering. In a decade’s time, when an even younger generation of politicians has swept onto Capitol Hill, will there be any politicians left who didn’t experiment with marijuana in their youths? (Well, with the exception of Alex Hawke.) And that really ought to beg a few questions. A criminal conviction is enough to disqualify you from parliament, so a situation where the majority of our lawmakers have broken a law is a serious situation – even if marijuana is decriminalised for personal use, it’s still a big concern. But more to the point, if in their private lives, virtually everyone in parliament has chosen to disregard a certain law, shouldn’t we reconsider whether that law ought to exist at all?
Sure, every pollie who admits to a little dope smoking is quick to reiterate that they wouldn’t dream of it now, but I think that’s a bit disingenuous. At the time, when they didn’t have public perception to worry about, they obviously didn’t think it was a problem, and surely beneath the layers of spin, that’s still their position. The fact is that a little experimentation with marijuana is normal in our society, and we should stop being hysterical about it. For the most part, people try it, perhaps even use it regularly for a year or two, and then give it away and get on with their lives with no adverse effects.
Which is not to condone its use. Marijuana can have a terrible psychological impact on some people, and I’m aware of situations where it was linked to panic attacks and even schizophrenia. But we’ve also all seen alcohol destroy people’s lives, and smoking’s more destructive still. So I really don’t understand why marijuana is in a different category. And when they made the decision to smoke at whatever university party it may have been, our politicians obviously felt the same way.
And that’s why no one got Daniel Johns’ joke. When three rock legends gather, even ones as strait-laced as Garrett and Bono, no-one would necessarily assume it would be a drug-free event. Sure, I might have doubted the story if Johns had said that he and Bono snorted lines of heroin off the top of Garrett’s head, or something. But passing around a joint while lying around and listening to a rock album is a common occurrence in our society. So it will be fascinating to see whether our politicians are willing to back up in their public capacities the judgements they’ve obviously made in their private lives.