- 07 Feb 20
During a televised election debate, Leo Varadkar’s reference to a Hot Press interview where he’d admitted smoking cannabis in his student days resulted in enormous controversy. But amidst the extensive fallout, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil missed the opportunity to seize the agenda and make the case for decriminalisation – which most experts agree is the best way to tackle a major social issue.
You truly don’t know the twists and turns life is going to take. Over the New Year period, the thought had occurred to me that it had been a while since the last Hot Press political controversy. One was probably due.
To say it arrived quicker than anticipated is an understatement. At home on the evening of January 22, I saw that the first of the general election leaders’ debates was happening that evening on Virgin Media, and made a mental note to watch it. During the programme, I received a text from a friend humourlessly noting that Hot Press was going to be all over the news again in the morning.
My analysis of the debate was less rigorous than planned – I quickly forgot it was taking place and was in the middle of playing Hitman 2 when the message arrived. But a brief perusal of social media confirmed that my friend was correct. There was already an avalanche of posts about one of the debate’s juicier moments, when host Pat Kenny had mischievously asked, “Final question to you both – an honest answer – have you ever taken illegal drugs?”
After a firm “No, I never have,” from Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, it was the Taoiseach’s turn.
“You know, I answered that question in a Hot Press interview about 12 or 13 years ago,” said an uncomfortable looking Leo Varadkar, notably struggling to pronounce the magazine’s name. “And I answered it truthfully.”
There was an awkward pause before Martin and Kenny asked, virtually in unison, “Which is?”
“Yes,” said an exasperated Varadkar, throwing up his hands. “But it was obviously a long time ago.”
The Taoiseach’s sheepish demeanour added a comedic element to the exchange: both it and the resulting fallout would have fitted nicely into The Thick Of It. It was a compelling moment in a campaign that, by the standards of 21st century US and UK politics, was almost Victorian in its civility. And while the clip – an instant viral hit – clocked in at a brief 20 seconds, it sparked a bonfire that told us a lot about contemporary politics and media.
It was little surprise that the controversy should emerge from the Hot Press interview, a slot that has a long history of generating political uproar, stretching back to the infamous 1984 encounter with Charles Haughey conducted by John Waters. Then, the Fianna Fáil leader had shared his views on everything from Boy George (“He seems a bit weird”) to his own enemies (“There’s a few fuckers whose throats I’d slit, push them over the nearest cliff, but sure there’s no percentage in that”).
Varadkar’s Hot Press Interview was far from the first to cause a scandal around the issue of cannabis, either, with FF’s Brian Cowen – another future Taoiseach – recalling in the magazine in 2007 that spliffs were passed around in UCD during his student days. In a memorable line, he noted that, “unlike President Clinton, I did inhale.”
In the case of Varadkar, the landslide coverage was a textbook example of how political controversies play out in the churn of the modern news cycle. Walking into my local shop the following morning, I was confronted by a Daily Mail front page with a debate screen-grab of a worried looking Taoiseach, beside the headline, “Have you taken illegal drugs?”
This, though, was but one element in a deluge that, for a brief moment, gave even the Trump impeachment proceedings a run for its money. There were headlines everywhere from The Irish Times (“Miriam Lord: Does Anyone Care If Leo Smoked Or Snorted?”), to The Irish Sun (“Taoiseach Admits He Used To Take Illegal Drugs But It Was ‘Long Time Ago’”).
Waterford Whispers enjoyed their most liked Twitter headline of the year to date with “Breaking: Taoiseach Pulls Out Of Election Events Due To Illness From A Bad Batch Of Yokes”.
Joe.ie did an extensive analysis of the original Hot Press interview, as well as holding a podcast debate on whether the debate moment would harm Varadkar’s re-election campaign.
When it came to the actual substance of the issue, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were found equally wanting. Inside the two parties, in the week after the debate, there was an atmosphere of outright paranoia on the drugs issue, prompting one to wonder if there were more quantities of grass being smoked in the Dáil than anyone was admitting.
Underscoring this was an abject failure by both parties to make any headway addressing what remains a vital social issue in Ireland, and in which there is considerable youth interest. This was actually touched on in an interesting post-debate interview Pat Kenny did with The Irish Mirror. Despite a headline played strictly for comedy value – “Pat Kenny hints he that he may have taken illegal drugs back in the ‘60s and ‘70s” – the feature allowed the presenter to make some interesting points.
“To an urban audience,” said Kenny, “anyone who went to college from the ‘60s to the noughties, the availability of weed was probably widespread. So Leo making the remark he did probably suggested an honesty on his part. Now admittedly, he had already committed himself in a Hot Press interview 12 years ago, so he couldn’t make a liar of himself.
“But at the same time, talking around my office here in Newstalk, where there are a lot of young people, they just found his honesty a bit refreshing and relatable. In the context of the political parties (talking) about middle class consumers of so-called recreational drugs fuelling the drugs trade, I think absolutely it was a fair question.”
The debate took place against the backdrop of ever-worsening gang feuds in different parts of the country. In a recent development more akin to the gruesome extremity associated with Mexican drug cartels, teenager Keane Mulready-Woods was murdered and dismembered as part of a feud between gangs in Drogheda.
That might make it all the more urgent to consider the case for decriminalisation and a progressive, healthcare-led approach to the drugs issue. But the Irish political establishment is not noted for its innate radicalism. Indeed, there was widespread dismay in the drug services community last year when the Minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne – after one of the biggest ever public consultation processes – announced that instead of going the Portuguese-style decriminalisation route, as had been widely recommended, Fine Gael were opting for the expansion of the existing drug diversion scheme.
It’s Hot Press’ understanding that, while key elements within the Department of Health were pro-decriminalisation, the Department of Justice – reluctant to relinquish authority and control – opposed the adoption of the model that has proved so successful in Portugal, and which is currently being looked at by several other European countries.
The Taoiseach cited the Oireachtas working group when being grilled by Ivan Yates after the debate. His comments – and the government’s new drugs strategy as unveiled last year – were a classic exercise in political fudge.
“What that group came up with,” Varadkar told Yates, “was the view that our legal system and the way it works is very different to the Portuguese system of codified law, where they have misdemeanours and so on. The Oireachtas group recommended that we shouldn’t decriminalise it, but we should change the approach – which is to a health-led approach.”
In other words: a health-led approach, minus the legislation that would give it genuine effectiveness.
The Fianna Fáil position has been equally muddled. In March of last year, following drug project Ana Liffey’s launch of its Safer From Harm campaign, the party’s spokesman on National Drug Policy & Urban Affairs, John Curran, issued a press released promisingly headlined, “Examining Viability Of Decriminalisation Could Help Us Turn A Corner In Drug Pandemic”.
However, Micheál Martin was as hesitant as his campaign rival during the election campaign. At an impromptu al fresco press conference the day after the debate, he was interrupted by smoke billowing from a nearby building.
“Is that Leo?” he quipped, to gales of laughter from the assembled reporters.
He was subsequently asked about Leo’s debate comments on drugs, to which he responded that he had nothing to say. Which can be translated as: Leo’s hanging himself, go talk to him about it.
During the campaign, the only hint of a progressive drugs policy came during the subsequent RTÉ debate featuring all the party leaders. There, the Greens’ Eamon Ryan cited the Portuguese model when giving his views on drugs policy, and the Taoiseach – with one eye on the post-election cabinet arithmetic – gave his statement a warm response.
Could decriminalisation become a red-line issue for the Greens in forming a new government? We’d like to think so. And might it be that a more progressive approach from the smaller parties like the Greens, Labour or the Social Democrats will ultimately be what pushes the bigger parties towards decriminalisation in a new coalition?
We’ll find out shortly, but it would be a welcome shift in a major social problem that continues to cost far too many lives.