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UK drugs policy no longer fit for purpose, says leading criminologist

UK drugs policy is no longer fit for purpose and requires a review, according to a leading UK criminologist.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which is intended to combat illegal drug use in the UK, is no longer fit for purpose, according to associate professor in criminology at the University of Leicester and co-chair for the British Society of Criminology’s Critical Criminology Network, Dr Tammy Ayres.

UK drugs policy has been described as contributing to a “drug apartheid” resulting in a corrupt system that is more concerned with who uses drugs and little to do with the risks posed by the substances themselves.

Fallacy as fact

Dr Ayres previously collaborated with colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, to dispel what they have coined as the ‘five fallacies of drug prohibition’ enshrined in UK law – including the tenuous connection between continued drug use and crime, as well as the ‘drug apartheid’ which refers to the arbitrary division of substances referred to as ‘drugs’.

“The demarcation between drugs and non-drugs is arbitrary and disproportionately discriminates along the lines of class, race/ethnicity and gender,” commented Dr Ayres. 

“However, it is legitimised by a reductionist drug discourse that presents fallacy as fact and cements erroneous constructions of drugs that are incorporated into the wider public discourse as well as the public’s conscience, which is then enshrined in policy and legislation.”

50 years from the legislation’s introduction, research conducted by Release, an independent charity, has shown that black people in the UK are stopped and searched for drugs six times more than white people, and Asian people are stopped and searched at two-and-a-half times the rate. Those identifying as mixed-race are stopped and searched for drugs at twice the rate of white people.

The research also shows that black people caught in possession of cannabis by the Metropolitan Police are less likely to receive a cannabis warning than white people, and are five times more likely to be charged with an offence.

“Despite the 50 years of harm, stigmatisation, criminalisation, social injustices and inequalities caused to certain populations, living in certain areas, and using certain drugs, the Misuse of Drugs Act – and its lack of scientific evidence base – remains the main piece of legislation arbitrarily governing the manufacture, supply and use of some substances (drugs) but not others (non-drugs), despite repeated calls for its reform,” concluded Dr Ayres. 

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