Politicians and drugs: Who’s done what? Does it matter?

From Andy Burnham to Barack Obama, a significant proportion of politicians have admitted to dabbling with drugs

Lord Sewel’s rapid exit from the House of Lords and resignation from his position as deputy speaker came almost immediately after the peer was apparently caught taking cocaine with sex workers in his London flat.

As a figure who was partly responsible for drawing up new codes of conduct for the House of Lords, Sewel’s private behaviour clearly conflicted with the principles he was espousing professionally.

Is it this particular hypocrisy that has been his downfall? Or is it simply that drugs are illegal, he is a married man, and that this sort of behaviour is not tolerated in Britain’s public officials whether they’re elected or not?

Other politicians have been candid about past drug use without it affecting their careers. But the difference has usually been that any transgressions were long ago.

And indeed, until recently, an unwritten rule for politicians speaking about their drugs experiences used to be something along the lines of: “I have tried cannabis, but didn’t enjoy it/inhale it, and it was a long time ago.”

But despite Sewel’s rapid step-down, the public is unlikely to judge him as harshly as he would have been judged in the past, and at the same time, the goalposts have moved when it comes to public figures admitting drug use.

Here are a few prominent confessions from past and present politicians.


Barack Obama

Barack Obama speaking about taking cannabis: “I inhaled frequently… that was the point.”

Obama writing about other drugs he’s used: “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though.”



Boris Johnson: The mayor of London and MP for Uxbridge has previously admitted to taking “dope”, when a teenager, and also admitted to having taken cocaine. “I tried [cocaine] at university and I remember it vividly. It achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever,” he said. He also made a less than complete admission on Have I Got News For You: “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.” Right.


Labour leadership contestants

Yvette Cooper: Currently in the running to become Labour leader, the frontbench MP has stuck to the unwritten rule: “I did try cannabis while at university, like a lot of students at that time, and it is something that I have left behind.”

In fact, of the four leadership candidates, only the frontrunner, Jeremy Corbyn says he has not taken illegal drugs.

Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall both said they’d smoked cannabis in their university days. According to the Mirror, Burnham said the admission, which came after former home secretary Jacqui Smith admitted taking cannabis, had been particularly embarrassing for him as he had never told his parents.



Louise Mensch

Louise Mensch: The former Tory MP and prolific Twitter user said: “I have used Class A drugs in the past… It’s had long-term mental health effects on me.”



Rob Ford

The former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford proved the old rules are still in action to some extent, after suffering wifespread public opprobrium for admitting taking crack cocaine. At the time he said: “Yes I have smoked crack cocaine… Am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Um, probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.”

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