The Damning Legacy of the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act (1971): 50 Years On

27th May 2021

Today, we mark the 50th anniversary of the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) which, for half a century, has been used as a failed deterrent to drug use with serious implications on the country’s citizens. As we reluctantly welcome this significant milestone, Canex is taking a look at the legacy of this failed legislation and attempting to amplify increasing calls for reform.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced in 1971 as an attempt to control and curb the use of “dangerous or otherwise harmful” drugs.

Generally considered to be the government’s primary weapon in the failed ‘War on Drugs’, the legislation has come under increasing fire over the last few decades. A growing number of activists, including drug reform advocates, MPs, and health experts, claim that the legislation has failed in its core purpose, and even created more damage to communities, leaving no choice but to review the approach to drug use across the UK.

What is the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)?

In the same month which played witness to massive anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington D.C. and the release of Paul McCartney’s second solo album, the UK government introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act.

A lot of things have changed since then, yet the legislation used in an attempt to control drug use in the UK remains the same.

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) essentially categorises drugs to determine the level of control deemed necessary under law. Drugs that are included in the Act are specified in Schedule 2 of the legislation, which divides them into different classes – Class A, Class B, and Class C – which are “broadly based on their general harm“.

Defying the laws of this Act can see an individual face hefty prison sentences. For example, maximum prison sentences for the production of a controlled drug can range from 14 years for a Class C drug to life imprisonment for a Class A substance. Furthermore, simple possession of a Class B drug, such as cannabis, still holds a potential sentence of 7 years in prison, rising to 14 years if intent to supply is proven.

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This legislation has successfully criminalised a significant proportion of the population, with around 175,000 drug offences recorded by police in England and Wales alone in 2019-20 – a 13% rise on the previous year.

How drug use has changed since the introduction of the Act

Despite being implemented as a means to deter the use of controlled and/or harmful drugs, the use of illegal drugs has actually skyrocketed over the last 50 years. There is also significant evidence that the majority of drug legislation from this era was based upon racial discrimination and designed to criminalise people of colour in a ‘legitimate’ way.

This legacy of racism in the UK’s drug policy remains evident today as, year after year, data demonstrates that black men are nine times more likely to be stopped by police for suspected cannabis possession than their white counterparts, despite similar rates of usage.

In fact, in 2018-19, national figures showed that over one-fifth (21%) of all convictions following a stop and search were of black people, despite this group only accounting for 3% of the UK population.

While drug usage rates remain relatively similar across ethnicities in the UK, the same cannot be said about usage rates over the last 50 years. Over the last ten years alone, the use of drugs among adults (aged 16-59 years) increased by 8.6%.

The Damning Legacy of the UK's Misuse of Drugs Act (1971): 50 Years On

Statistics such as these demonstrate the inherent failures of the Misuse of Drugs Act – failures that have prompted numerous campaigns for the complete replacement of the legislation. These campaigns have become more prominent in recent years, with whole political parties – including the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats – calling for meaningful drug reforms including cannabis legalisation.

A report released by the UK drug policy commission back in 2012 used evidence from the failed Misuse of Drugs Act to build a case for drug decriminalisation:

The report stated that “the law relating to the possession of drugs has become discredited to such an extent that any usefulness in setting a moral position has in many situations become largely ineffectual.”

It continued to draw comparisons from other countries, where a tendency toward drug liberalisation, such as the complete decriminalisation seen in Portugal. It concluded that “Prevalence and consumption have not increased in these countries to any significant extent. Some experts indeed argue that these reforms have led to decreasing problems.”

TRANSFORM Drug Policy Foundation this year launched yet another campaign for meaningful changes to be made to drug policy in the UK.

“For fifty years the Misuse of Drugs Act has damaged people and communities, undermined science and entrenched social injustice”, the campaign argues.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Act today, TRANSFORM is asking MPs and peers to use the landmark as an opportunity to speak out on drug policy failures by signing up to the following statement:

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) is not fit for purpose. For 50 years, it has failed to reduce drug consumption. Instead, it has increased harm, damaged public health and exacerbated social inequalities.

Change cannot be delayed any longer. We need reform and new legislation to ensure that future drug policy protects human rights, promotes public health and ensures social justice.

You can also support the campaign on social media using the hashtag #50YearsOfFailure!

Campaigns for drug policy reform have also been prominent among a number of Conservative MPs in recent years. The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group was formed with the mission of implementing evidence-based drug policy.

In their mission statement, the group says, “In 1971 President Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’… Fast-track half a century forward and we find hundreds of thousands dead, countless affected by drug crime directly or indirectly and countries spending billions of pounds, on police, health and criminal justice resources.”

The Future of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

While the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) has now managed to cling on for half a century, pressure is increasingly mounting on the government to scrap the legislation altogether.

In addition to campaign groups like the ones featured in this article, the UK public is also progressively expressing support for drug reforms – particularly when it comes to cannabis. In fact, a whopping 79% of people polled in a 2019 survey revealed that they didn’t believe the UK’s current drug policy deals well with the country’s drug problems.

Given this obvious support among health and social experts, MPs, and the public it is no longer a matter of if, but when the UK will reform its approach to drugs and finally write off the outdated Misuse of Drugs Act (1971).


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