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Sixty MPs And Peers Back Calls For Review Of 50-Year-Old UK Drugs’ Laws

FIFTY years on from the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act, the chief executive of a leading UK-based charity working for drug reform has labelled the legislation a ‘disaster’. 

Dr James Nicholls heads-up the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which has teamed up with a number of other civil society organisations to launch a campaign calling for the reform of the act, which came into force in 1971.

Introduced under the stewardship of the then Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, the act aimed to control and curb the use of dangerous and otherwise harmful preparations by separating illicit drugs into classes which carry different penalties.

Total Failure

But Dr Nicholls said: “The Misuse of Drugs Act has been a disaster. In the 50 years since it was introduced, we have seen both use and deaths rise dramatically. The UK now has the highest drug deaths in Europe, and the situation continues to get worse. 

“The Government’s recent review of drug markets sets out this failure in detail, and confirms that it cannot be resolved simply through more policing. We need to start a debate now to finally break the deadlock.” 

The Transform Drug Policy Foundation has been joined by family members of the Anyone’s Child movement; Release, which is the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law; independent scientific body, Drug Science; and The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, in highlighting the act’s failure to reduce drug consumption.

Instead, the groups’ say it has increased harm, damaged public health and exacerbated social inequalities, and that reform and new legislation is crucial.

Police And Public Health Support

More than 60 MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum as well as senior scientists, public health specialists and former police officers, have voiced their support for the urgent review of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Among them is Conservative MP, Dr Dan Poulter, an NHS hospital doctor working in mental health services, who took part in the last three day Prohibition Partners Live virtual conference, debating Political Correctness: How Can the UK Government Get Things Right, alongside Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, and former chief drugs adviser to the UK Government, Professor David Nutt.

He said: “The Misuse of Drugs Act is hopelessly outdated and in need of urgent reform and change. Drugs policy should no longer be seen through the narrow prism of the criminal justice system but as a health issue, so that we can ensure those with drug dependence can get better access to the help and support they need.”

The latest Home Office review shows the annual cost of drug enforcement in England alone is £1.4bn – yet the UK has one of the highest drug-related death rates in Europe.

Figures from The Transform Drug Policy Foundation reveal that in England and Wales, annual drug related deaths have risen from under 100 when the act was introduced to 2,883 – a rise of nearly 3,000%.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs for personal use. Since then drug-related deaths, HIV infections and associated crimes have all dropped.

2.5m Regular Cannabis Users

The foundation’s data also shows that cannabis use has increased from around 500,000 people to over 2.5m, while cocaine seizures have grown more than 600-fold from around 6kg a year to over 4,000kg.

The UK also has the highest cocaine use rate in Europe with 5.3% of young adults using it in the past year.

Heroin use has increased from under 10,000 people to over 250,000, an increase of 2,400%.

But while a growing number of campaigners are calling for the decriminalisation and regulation of drugs, the Government says it has no plans to legalise them.

Labour MP Jeff Smith said: “The Misuse of Drugs Act was supposed to eradicate drug use, reduce harm, and keep people safe. 

“But since 1971, drug use has risen dramatically in the UK, decent people have been needlessly criminalised and had their lives destroyed, those struggling with addictions have been stigmatised and punished, thousands of children have fallen victim to trafficking and exploitation at the hands of criminal gangs, and we are in the midst of a devastating drug-related deaths crisis.” 


What it says:

The Misuse of Drugs Act came into force 50 years ago and brought the UK into line with UN drug control conventions.

It is at the heart of the UK’s anti-drug strategy and separates illicit drugs into classes which carry different penalties.

These include life imprisonment for the supply and production of illegal drugs.

Possession can carry a maximum seven year sentence.

Drugs are classified as Class A, B or C according to a ranking of their relative harms, with A being deemed to most injurious and C the least.

Cannabis is in the Class B category that also includes amphetamines, barbiturates and cannabis resin.

The Misuse of Drugs Act also sets out in section 23 the powers the police have to stop and search people for suspicion of drug possession.

The act also established an independent expert advisory group which monitors the drug situation in the UK and guides ministers on any changes in the law.

These include amending and adding new drugs to the classifications.

In 2004 cannabis was moved from a Class B to a Class C drug. But in 2009 the Government reclassified it as a Class B drug – against the recommendations of the advisory group.

The Misuse of Drugs Act makes it an offence in itself just to possess a controlled drug. It is also an offence under the act for an occupier to allow their premises to be used for production or supply offences.

It is also a specific offence for occupiers to allow the preparation of opium for smoking, or the smoking of cannabis, cannabis resin, or prepared opium, on their property.

The Transform Drug policy Foundation says this has specific implications for the establishment of overdose prevention centres, and continues to be used to block their creation.

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