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Mark Thompsons 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.

The full interview can be read on Mark Reckons Blog at http://markreckons.blogspot.com/2009/09/interview-on-drugs-policy-with-phillip.html

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