Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday 14 September 2009

Interview on drugs policy with Phillip Oppenheim, former Conservative minister

I recently interviewed former Conservative Minister Phillip Oppenheim about his views on drugs policy in this country. He was a minister under John Major but is no longer an MP and is now a motivational speaker and businessman. He is also managing director of the Cubana bar and restaurant in London. He does however still keep his hand in with politics and regularly writes for the Party Political Animal blog.

His answers gave me an interesting insight into the views on the progressive wing of the Conservative Party.

My questions are in bold and Phillip's answers are in italics:

You wrote a piece for your Party Political Animal blog recently entitled “The drugs policy isn’t working” where you were scathing about drugs policy in the UK. How long have you felt like this?

At school and univeristy I saw the damage that drugs can do and I was very anti-drugs, but I have also always been on the libertarian wing of the Tory Party and in the '80s began to consider first the personal freedom issues and second, increasingly the practical failures of drugs policies and began to argue for reform. My time as Treasury minister in charge of Customs and Excise in the mid '90s also exposed me to the practical failures of the policy, while Blair's promises to get tough on drugs were a complete failure. Finally, travel to countries like Mexico in the '90s were also an influence - I suppose it was the late '80s when my views changed significantly and I wrote in the Guardian in the late '90s for reform.

You were a government minister in the 1990s with responsibility for Customs and Excise within the Treasury. In your experience was the view that the system regarding drugs policy is broken widespread within Whitehall and/or amongst your parliamentary colleagues?

There was a strong minority view at all levels that the policy wasn't working, but the Thatcherite's social conservatism played against a real debate, while under Major the government was too weak seriously to consider reform. The response of the media to any reform was always a factor.

Did you try to influence policy from behind the scenes in a more progressive direction in this area when you were a minister?


Can you give some examples of how you tried to do this?

In Cabinet committee in private discussions with ministers and more generally - I was in the Treasury in charge of Customs for a year, but unfortunately it was the last year of the Major government when we had other priorities and concerns, added to which the Home Office had the major input into drugs policy and the Home Offie ministers were generally very conservative. The debate has moved on since then, of course, and I think more politicians realise the policy isn't working.

I raised a question on this subject during a panel discussion about the existence of a political and media class at the Convention on Modern Liberty earlier this year (video here) about how politicians and the media generally seem to conspire to prevent a sensible debate from occurring about drug policy. It tends to degenerate into accusations of being “Soft on drugs” and reduced to emotional arguments about “keeping our children safe” without any attempt to address to fact that drug use is much higher under the existing regime. Simon Jenkins of The Guardian responded that from his perspective the problem is a cultural one within government that there is a perception that the public is against any suggestion of reform but that is a fundamental mismatch with reality. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

I completely agree - I think that politicians would be surprised at the response they would get to a serious debate on the subject. My experience is that a lot of Tories now favour reform, but they are terrified about being seen as soft on drugs by the media and prejudicing an almost certain election victory. Cameron had a chance to start a real debate when his own drug taking experiences became an issue, but I guess he was too timid to do so.

So of the current Parliamentary Conservative Party, what percentage do you think privately think there should be reform of the drugs laws?

Very difficult for me to say as I am not an MP and not in as close touch with the party as I was - when I was an MP I would have said 20%. But the Tory grass roots are very anti reform and Cameron, having dragged the party to the centre, will not want to upset them any more. I would say that my old association in Amber Valley would be very anti reform - when I went up to give a dinner speech in 2004 and argued against identity cards, I was almost booed - if I had spoken for reform of drugs laws, I might have had bread rolls chucked at me!

If you were still in Parliament, do you think you would have been as outspoken about this issue?


What would you have done and said?

I would have tried to find like minded MPs and set up a group to push for reform and argued for it at every opportunity to move the debate on. One problem is that MPs with hopes of promotion don't want to be seen as mavericks and support a line which might prejudice their promotion - hence the 'politariat', the professional political class, are very unwilling to discuss the issue properly

I did a blog post recently where I highlighted the findings of an opinion poll in New England a few years ago which found that although a majority of people thought that cannabis should be legalised for medical use, they actually thought (assumed?) they were in a minority which I found an interesting quirk. Does this finding chime with your experience of this subject?

Very much so - the public are more mature on this than the media or the politicians

And yet the media and politicians are supposed to reflect the views of the public. Why do you think the mechanism has broken down on this issue?

Ha ha! The media I think also takes a safety first policy and they don't want to stick their head over the battlements. When I wrote for the Sunday Times a decade ago, they would not let me write in favour of reform - they have changed their ground a bit since then, but not much. No-one wants to appear wacky and also in the past few years, the news priorities have been with economics and terrorism.

In your article you suggested that if any major party was willing to be a bit more brave on the drugs issue, they might find they get a better response than they think. In your view, which of the 3 major parties do you think will grasp this nettle and hence reap these potential rewards of treating the public like adults?

Sadly, the Lib Dems!

Finally, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the results of Portugal’s 8 year long experiment with decriminalisation (I blogged about it here) and how you think the lessons they have learned could be applied here.

We have pretty much the tougest laws on drugs (and drink) in the EU and pretty much the worst problem - we treat people like kids and the result is they behave like kids, and criminality flourishes. Portugal and other EU countries have had a more liberal approach and now have less of a problem. No one visiting the real Portugal would say they have more social disorder or crime than we do - I recently took a late Saturday night train in Lisbon with my son and the contrast between that and a similar experience in the UK was instructive.


Ewan Hoyle said...

Great work Mark. I wonder if you missed this poll while away on holiday:

Comparing with the 2002 attitudes in a poll here:,,686454,00.html

It looks like the proportion of people supporting legalising all drugs has gone from around 2% to 19% in 7 years. This may be down to the questions asked being different. Would all that 19% respond "yes" to the "even heroin" question? But it still looks like a massive shift in public opinion in the absense of any political campaign. Add a political campaign and who knows what could happen.

Letters From A Tory said...

I don't mean to be rude but all these anti-corruption anti-slease groups like Jury Team just strike me as a waste of time. Without the power, airtime and resources to compete with the big parties, they simply cannot make any serious progress.

Mark Thompson said...

LFAT - I think you might have intended this comment for the POWER2010 post I did this morning rather than this one!