Half a Century of Failure: The UK’s Drug War Turns 50
On May 27th 1971, the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) came into effect across the UK, setting in motion five decades of criminalisation, tens of thousands of overdose deaths, and billions of wasted pounds.
The legislation, a masterstroke in failed public policy by Edward Heath’s
Conservative government, criminalised the possession, production, and
distribution of some drugs. The most widely used drugs – alcohol, tobacco, and
caffeine – were, of course, given a pass.
Despite being supported by every government since its inception, the MDA has
been fiercely criticised by many people with a knowledge of drugs beyond that
of “Talk to FRANK” -- including neuropsychopharmacologist Professor David
Nutt, who served as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
In 2009, Nutt highlighted the hypocrisy of legislation that criminalised the use
of cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy – all of which he said were less harmful than
alcohol and tobacco. He was promptly sacked by the government following
this statement as, evidently, he had made a disastrous mistake: he believed
that the Home Office based its drug policy on evidence, rather than on the fear
of what Rupert Murdoch’s henchmen would spew over the News of the
World’s front page.
But the overarching problem of the MDA is not which drugs it chooses to
prohibit, but how it chooses to respond to drug use: with punishment. By
threatening people with arrests, criminal records, and even prison sentences
for mere drug possession, this legislation has become a greater cause of
suffering than drug use could ever be.
Criminalising people who struggle with addiction dissuades those who want
help from seeking it, and compounds the hurdles that they are trying to
overcome. In working class communities particularly, the policing of drug use
pushes people into the fringes of society, away from the treatment and
services that could support them. People in their 40s living in the poorest
neighbourhoods of England and Wales are at least five-and-a-half times more
likely to die from drugs than those in the least deprived, according to 2019
The MDA is also impacting people who use drugs recreationally or occasionally.
The law saddles thousands of young people with criminal records for drug possession every year, erecting needless barriers to jobs and other future
prospects -- trapping some of the poorest in society in a cycle of intergenerational poverty.
The need for change is enormous and urgent. Yet the current government is
doubling down in its drug war hysteria, along with a typical tinge of Tory
hypocrisy. Last year, former- British American Tobacco lobbyist and current- home
secretary Priti Patel pledged a crackdown on drug use, insisting that there is
“no such thing as dabbling in drugs”. Patel has yet to comment on whether she
seeks to prosecute Boris Johnson for snorting cocaine, or Dominic Raab or Matt Hancock for smoking cannabis. Patel, presumably, has never touched illegal drugs, as she gets enough of a high from stamping “DENIED” on asylum
seekers’ application forms.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of successive governments refusing to
budge on drug policy is that there is a wealth of evidence demonstrating how
an alternative works far better: decriminalisation.
Portugal, which had one of Europe’s highest overdose death rates in the 1990s, became a poster child for decriminalisation after revising their drug laws in
2001. The country has seen overdose deaths plummet to some of the lowest
levels in the EU. Their model has not led to increases in overall drug use, and it
has decisively reduced problematic drug use and new cases of HIV/AIDS among
people who use drugs. People found with drugs for personal use now face, at
worst, an administrative sanction, and are offered referrals to treatment and
health services instead of handcuffs and cold cells.
And Portugal is not alone -- at least 29 countries now implement a model of
decriminalisation for some or all drugs at either the national or state/provincial
level. Most recently, the US state of Oregon followed Portugal’s path by
decriminalising all drug possession and increasing funding for health and
treatment services (funding in part allocated from the state’s tax on legal
There were 4,393 drug deaths in England and Wales in 2019, the highest figure
since records began. Per capita, our drug-related death rate is around twelve
times higher than that of Portugal. Each one of these precious lives was lost
needlessly, as a result of leaders too cowardly to challenge the Misuse of Drugs
Act in spite of the overwhelming evidence against it.
We need firm and immediate courage from our elected representatives to
overturn this punitive and archaic law, and to build something better in its
The preamble of the Misuse of Drugs Act states that it will counter “dangerous
or otherwise harmful drugs”, but, in reality, it has created the perfect
circumstances for the worst harms of drug use -- and drug policy -- to thrive.
Written by Avinash Tharoor | Follow him for more at @AvinashTharoor