May 2021 will mark 50 years of the current UK drug policy ‘The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971’. Legislation that:

  • Aimed to bring drugs under control in the UK.
  • To bring a complete ban in the possession as well as the manufacturing, supply, export, import of controlled drugs with some licenced exceptions.
  • It brought about an official regulator, the ‘Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) who would assess and will place strict standards of security on drugs causing concern.
  • To encompass the treaty commitments of the United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 and the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971.

It is a policy the tackles the supply, possession, trafficking, and production of natural occurring and synthetic drugs, that are deemed to be a risk of being abused.

The Drug Scene In 1960’s -1970’s

The drug scene in the UK was changing fast and deferred to other countries.  Although some drugs had been made illegal within the UK under 1920  Dangerous Drugs legislation, some drugs were prescribed for medical use including heroin (to addicts until 1967), Cocaine, and cannabis (1971). Crystal Meth was available for sale at chemists until 1967.  Heroin had changed from medical graded heroin, diamorphine, to illicit street Chinese based Heroin. Some sub youth cultures had turned to solvents (punks) and Amphetamine abuse (mods).

The drugs market in Britain was constantly changing and the policy in place (‘The Dangerous Drugs Act’) was no longer fit for purpose.  A new drugs policy was needed. A policy that could be easily changed in order to control new, dangerous drugs coming on the market. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was formed.  It also brought about the ACMD (Advisory Council for Misuse of Drugs) regulators who assess the risks of drugs being misused within the UK and advises the Government which fulfilled an obligation within the UN treaties to have in-country regulators.

Misuse Use Of Drugs Act in today’s society

50 Years on, there is a strong community within the drug treatment and research field calling for drug policy reform, arguing that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is no longer fit for purpose in today’s society.  Many argue this policy is criminal heavy rather than supporting users to recovery by treating drug addiction as a disease, especially when possession even for personal use was brought under control criminalising users and possibly those who work with them. Addicts find themselves facing criminal convictions with lack of treatment provision, if caught in possession of certain drugs.  The ability to legally provide certain (research evidence based) harm reduction treatments (Heroin Assisted Treatment, safe injecting rooms etc) for addicts that are likely to reduce crime as well as treating addicts, is hindered by this law.

Drug addiction has long been defined as a disease.  Even in 1884 a body of English Physicians ‘the society for the study of inebriety’ promoted the disease model of addiction and expressed the need for treatment (however this is mostly aimed at alcohol addiction). The Rolleston report stated in its conclusion, that problem drug use was a condition that must be regarded as a manifestation of disease and not as a mere form of vicious indulgence.

Drug policy debates in Parliament

Some Politicians are even backing the Drug reform movement. On 22nd March 2021, Scottish National Party member, Tommy Sheppard presented a Private Members Bill ‘The Problem Drug Use Bill’ to the House of Commons.  This bill calls for:

  • A move from problem drug use being a criminal approach governed by Home office to a health approach governed by Department of Health and Social Care.
  • Acknowledgement that Problem Drug Use is a public health issue.
  • Policy to take a harm reduction rather than an abstinence approach in reducing use including the implementation of safer drug consumption rooms.
  • To re-address the classification system of drugs.
  • To address issue on how society treats drug addicts through stigma, welfare sanctions and acknowledge addiction has underlying causes.
  • That issues can be crossed over to other legislation including the equalities act.

For more information on this bill go to Problem Drug Use Bill (

In another debate on the same day the Minister of Crime and Policing was asked by SNP Member, Alla Darans,  “What plans she has to review the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”. Her response was that there were no plans to review it, but emphasised that policy is not the only way to prevent drug misuse and that education within schools, promoting treatment and recovery and preventing the supply of illicit drugs are all part of this.  Alla also brought up the issue of safer drug consumption rooms which have evidence based research confirming that using them can dramatically reduce drug deaths and reduce drug harms.  He requested a room be piloted especially within Scotland.

Safer drug consumption rooms are not favoured by the Government, as many view them to be a way of encouraging use, rather than preventing it.  A Public Health approach to drug use would support such work, as it takes on a harm reduction approach. Not only does it provide a sterile and safe area for drug users to inject; preventing infections, and risk of overdose deaths, but provides a base for health care services to assess the user’s needs,  to provide wound treatment and refer to treatment recovery places.

Whilst needle exchange places have reduced blood- borne disease, other injecting risks still occur. Another route would be to provide Heroin Assisted Treatment where medically graded heroin would be prescribed and used in a safer injecting facility or medical facility.  Although the Government disproves of such facilities, it has invested in a new project known as ‘ADDER’ – Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement & Recovery Project. It is currently being piloted in 5 areas of England and Wales which are considered high drug use areas (Blackpool, Hastings,  Middlesbrough, Norwich, and Swansea Bay).

ADDER’s project pledge is ‘Build Back Safer’ from the pandemic to which the Government has invested £80 million extra into treatment provision across England.  The project aims to:

  • Bring law enforcement and service providers together to reduce crime.
  • Tackle County lines.
  • Dismantle criminal gangs.
  • Taking drugs off the street to make communities safer.
  • Reduce Crime.
  • Encourage users to access treatment and recovery.
  • Work with the courts aiming to divert offenders to non-custodial sentences and into tough and effective community sentences.
  • Work with prisons to make sure prisoners get into treatment upon their release and be support for up 1 year following release, in the aim to reduce re-offending.

Though we as an organisation do not support everything drug policy reformers are calling for, we do believe it is time for a drug policy reform. We would like to see Drug Policy:

  • Recognise Problem Drug Use as a disease and public health issue.
  • More Government funding for recovery services that not only provide abstinence programmes but gradual reduction to withdrawal programmes as recommended by both Rolleston reports.

Transform Drug Policy foundation has more information regarding why Drug Policy reform is needed and are encouraging people to write to their MPS. MDA at 50 | Transform ( #50YearsOfFailure