Boris Johnson launches his Conservative Party leadership campaign in London on June 12, 2019.
Leon Neal—Getty Images
By Billy Perrigo
June 13, 2019

The race to replace Theresa May as U.K. Prime Minister is in full swing, and with it, scrutiny of those who hope to take her job.

Ahead of Thursday’s first round of voting, media focus was not so much on the candidates‘ Brexit policies, nor on their plans to avert environmental catastrophe. Instead, admissions of past drug use by eight out of the ten candidates on the ballot dominated the front pages of the U.K.’s newspapers. After the first round of voting, six out of the seven candidates still standing had previously admitted taking drugs.

The bizarre start to the leadership race reflects that coming clean on past drug use no longer carries the same political weight it once did. “I think these days, because you can’t really prevent these drug stories from coming out, that honestly is the best policy,” says Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

A bigger issue is what that drug use might show about a candidate’s character. “The damage done by appearing to cover something up, or by being accused of hypocrisy, is greater than the damage done by admitting you’ve done something in your youth,” says Bale. That’s particularly true for candidates aspiring to lead the Conservative Party, which continues to oppose liberalizing tough drug laws.

Why have so many candidates admitted to taking drugs?

The trend began last week when Environment Secretary Michael Gove, one of the frontrunners, was forced to admit that he had taken cocaine on social occasions when he was a young journalist, after a section from a forthcoming biography was published.

“The book is correct,” Gove said on June 8. “I did take drugs.” The story dominated the weekend newspapers, and soon his competitors were being quizzed on their drug-taking histories.

Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, soon admitted to having a “cannabis lassi when I went backpacking through India.” Dominic Raab, another competitor, admitted to trying cannabis at university, though “not very often as I was into sport.”

Things soon got even more bizarre. Rory Stewart, an outsider candidate, admitted he had smoked opium at a wedding in Iran. “I was invited into the house,” he said by way of explanation. “The opium pipe was passed around,” he said, before speculating that he may not have felt the drug’s effects because the family was poor and therefore may have put only a small amount of opium into the pipe.

On television news, another challenger, Andrea Leadsom, admitted that she had smoked cannabis as a university student. Quizzed repeatedly, she refused to disclose whether she enjoyed it, nor whether she had used a joint or a bong. (Leadsom was knocked out of the race on Thursday.)

And at his campaign launch on Wednesday, the frontrunner Boris Johnson dodged questions about his past use, or otherwise, of cocaine––which he had previously alluded to on a television quiz show. He said in 2005: “I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.” On another occasion, he also admitted to having smoked cannabis: “There was a period before university when I had quite a few [joints]. It was jolly nice.”

The candidates who have admitted to taking drugs are: Michael Gove (cocaine), Matt Hancock (marijuana), Jeremy Hunt (marijuana), Boris Johnson (marijuana, and has alluded to having taken cocaine), Dominic Raab (marijuana) and Rory Stewart (opium). The only remaining candidate who said he had never taken drugs was Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary.

What effect might admissions of drug use have on the Conservative leadership race?

“To be honest, I think it depends on the candidate,” says Bale. “It depends on what they have done and said about drugs beforehand.”

For Gove, that could be a problem. Roughly around the time of his drug-taking, he penned newspaper columns criticizing cocaine. And, in his former job as Justice Secretary, he was responsible for enforcing tough laws against drug use. That “appears to indict him of hypocrisy, which is one of the worst political sins in this country,” Bale says.

Johnson could get off more lightly. He referenced drug use back in 2005––in a move which might be compared to Barack Obama’s admission, years before he ran for office, that he had smoked marijuana and taken “maybe a little blow” (cocaine) in his youth.

But in dodging questions on that alleged drug use at his campaign launch on Wednesday, Johnson might be opening himself up to attack, Bale says. “I think there is a bit of a problem if somebody is seen to have lied, and lied serially about something so serious.”

The people casting the votes will make a difference, too. The voters in the first rounds of the leadership race are not the whole U.K. electorate, but rather Conservative lawmakers, who will be choosing as much based on political leaning, ambition and personal relationships as on drug use. While lawmakers may take admissions of drug use into account when deciding whether any candidate can garner support among the electorate, it’s unlikely to be high on their lists.

In the final round, the franchise will be extended, if only slightly, to paid-up members of the Conservative Party. Unsurprisingly, they lean towards social conservatism, however the party does have sections of support from young and university-educated cohorts, Bale says, both of which are likely to be more forgiving on past drug use.

There are no recent polls on attitudes toward drug use among Conservative members, however a YouGov poll of 1,677 people from September 2018 showed that 56% of Britons believed having taken cocaine should disqualify a person from public office. Only 31% believed the same for cannabis.

Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com.

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