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The UK's Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

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Mind-altering drugs have long been known to cause harm to both individuals and society, and many countries therefore have laws banning them. In the UK, the Misuse of Drugs Act breaks these drugs up into three classes and details penalties for those caught possessing them. The Act is often criticised by all and sundry, either for failing to prevent drug abuse or being too restrictive. The classification of cannabis is a source of an endless debate, and the inconsistency of having legal alcohol and tobacco is often used to show up the Act as nothing more than an historic legacy. This Entry looks at how the Act came to be, what it means, and some of the issues that surround it.

A Long Trip

The gradual journey towards drug control began with an honest mistake in 1858. In those days, sugar was expensive and it was diluted with 'daft', a mixture of plaster and limestone. One day, through a series of unfortunate events, a Bradford sweet maker purchasing 'daft' was provided with arsenic, with which he proceeded to make a batch of mint humbugs. Thanks to the Arsenic Act (1851), the poison used was dyed so as to appear distinctly off-white, thus producing some odd-looking humbugs. A local sweet seller used this fact to obtain a discount when purchasing a large quantity of said humbugs, which he then sold at the market.

The death of 20 children did much to attract public attention and led to a move for greater control over the sale of poisons. This played straight into the hands of the Pharmaceutical Society, which had for several years been seeking to monopolise both the training of pharmacists and sale of 'poisons' (read 'drugs'). Once a report on the indiscriminate sale of poisons had been released, it was only a matter of time before the Pharmacy Act (1868) was passed: provide for the safety of the public by compelling all persons keeping shop for the sale of poisons, and all chemists and druggists to undergo an examination before the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain as to their practical knowledge; and no person was to be permitted to keep a shop for the sale of poisonous drugs, or to call himself a 'chemist and druggist' unless duly certified.
– from an explanation of the Act's purpose by Earl Granville in the House of Lords

The Act listed the substances that should be considered 'poisons', for possession and sale to the public by pharmacists alone1. Among the drugs included was opium, a mind-altering substance grown from poppy seeds in the Middle East and Asia. Having spent much of the 19th century smuggling Indian opium into China, thus provoking two Opium Wars, Britain finally succeeded in having the opium trade legalised in 1860. By the time of the Pharmacy Act, use of the drug was widespread and, due to its perception as a drug that was misused by the lower classes, opium was added to the list so that it might be sold only by reputable shops.

As the opium problem worsened, the first international laws against drug abuse were made. In 1912, a group of 13 nations including the UK signed the International Opium Convention, restricting the drug's use to medicinal purposes. The convention was not properly implemented until 1919, as the Great War intervened. In the meantime, the Defence of the Realm Act incorporated laws controlling possession of opiates and cocaine. The aim was to prevent soldiers on leave from using the drugs. But success was limited, with stories of 'drug-crazed soldiers' leading to a ban on cocaine in 1920 under the Dangerous Drugs Act2. This Act superseded the Pharmacy Act and added stricter controls for the 'poisons' that now became referred to as 'dangerous drugs'. These substances could only be provided to persons by prescription, and detailed paper trails had to be produced. Following recommendations at the Second Opium Conference and some hysterical press coverage, cannabis was added to the Act in 1928.

Despite these prohibitive measures, there was a certain degree of sympathy for those lives were being wrecked by drugs. In 1926, a Department of Health committee reported that drug addiction should be considered a disease, and sufferers should be treated rather than criminalised. The result was a system whereby doctors would prescribe dangerous drugs to addicts in a carefully regulated manner, thus minimising the harm caused. This system lasted until the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was introduced in 1961. Desperate to crack down on global drug trading and use, the convention banned countries from treating addicts through the prescription of illegal substances, allowing only for scientific and medical uses of drugs.

Following pressure from the US, the convention was enshrined in UK law as the Drugs (Regulation of Misuse) Act in 1964. It's worth noting that the convention was not particularly clear as to the need for punishment of individual drug users, instead focusing on the problems of drug production and trafficking. Despite this, the 1964 Act introduced penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs, as well as for those possessing with intent to traffic or deal in drugs. The move from strict control of drugs to criminalisation of individual users was complete. The police were soon given the power to 'stop and search' individuals for illegal drugs.

If the 1964 Act was designed to crackdown on drugs, why was another Act needed in 1971? The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs only dealt with naturally occurring drugs such as opium and cocaine. To deal with the rise of artificial substances such as LSD, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances was introduced in 1971. This led to the Misuse of Drugs Act which finally covered all forms of mind-altering drugs. As it can be amended as necessary, it is still in force today.

How the Act Works

Don't do drugs because if you do drugs you'll go to prison, and drugs are really expensive in prison.
– John Hardwick, music video director

Despite more than 100 years having passed, the basis of the Misuse of Drugs Act was not entirely different to that of the 1868 Pharmacy Act. Illicit substances are listed and the punishments for illegal possession are detailed3:

  • Class A

    • Drugs included: heroin, cocaine, crack, LSD, ecstasy, 'magic mushrooms', morphine, amphetamines for injection.
    • Penalty for possession: unlimited fine and/or up to seven years in prison.
    • Penalty for dealing: unlimited fine and/or up to life in prison.

  • Class B

    • Drugs included: cannabis, dihydrocodeine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), pholcodine, amphetamines.
    • Penalty for possession: unlimited fine and/or up to five years in prison.
    • Penalty for dealing: unlimited fine and/or up to 14 years in prison.

  • Class C

    • Drugs included: anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines, gammahydroxybutyrate (GHB), ketamine.
    • Penalty for possession: unlimited fine and/or up to two years in prison.
    • Penalty for dealing: unlimited fine and/or up to 14 years in prison.

As well as banning the possession of illegal drugs, the Act prohibits their import, export, production and supply. It also makes it illegal to incite another person to do any of the above. It is not an offence, however, to be under the influence of drugs, provided you don't do something stupid like try to drive or operate machinery.

It is also an offence to knowingly allow premises to be used for drug misuse. And cannabis plant cultivation, possession of opium pipes and the possession of hypodermic syringes for illegal drug injection are all banned. To prove that the law has been broken, the police have the power to search individuals and their vehicles and to raid premises provided they suspect the presence of illegal substances.

The Act does include a few get-out clauses. Possession of an illegal drug to prevent another person from using it is defensible, provided all reasonable steps are taken to either destroy it or deliver it to a person who can lawfully possess it (eg the police). There is also the defence of sheer ignorance, although this has to be proven by the defendant rather than being the default assumption. Finally, the Act makes an exception to allow appropriate medical use of drugs by doctors, dentists, vets, pharmacists and so forth, although an exception to the exception exists for those with drug-related convictions. Of course, the Act does not detail which persons have the authority to handle which controlled drugs – this is currently covered by the Misuse of Drugs Regulations (2001).

Are the Drugs in the Right Classes?

In 2007, the medical journal The Lancet published a suggested scale for drug classification. Having looked at the physical and social harm and level of dependence caused by a selection of mind-altering substances, a group of doctors and scientists gave each one a harm rating. The resulting league table placed heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone at the top, followed shortly by alcohol. Tobacco was rated as being more dangerous than cannabis, which in turn was placed higher than the Class A drugs ecstasy and LSD. The group concluded that its results could not justify the current system of drug classification, and that a rational and transparent approach based on harm ratings would be more appropriate. This echoed the findings of a House of Commons committee the previous year.

The classification of cannabis has been a perennial issue ever since the Drugs (Regulation of Misuse) Act in 1964. Although it had been illegal since 1928, the ban on the drug had never been properly exercised. Its inclusion as an illegal substance in the 1964 Act was based partly on concerns that it might act as a gateway drug, and did little other than provoke the Legalise Pot rally in Hyde Park three years later.

Cannabis became a Class B drug under the 1971 Act, meaning offenders should be arrested but in reality the police often cautioned users and confiscated the drug. Home Secretary David Blunkett downgraded cannabis to Class C in 2004 to free up police to go after those using harder drugs such as crack, cocaine and heroin. However, concerns over an increase in the drug's strength were used to justify moving the drug back into Class B in 2009. Despite falling levels of cannabis use, ministers worried that downgrading the drug had sent out the wrong message. In the end, the use of on-the-spot fines rather than arrests for first offences sends mixed messages about its classification, and makes it unlikely that the drug's Class B status will have much of an effect on levels of use.

Should Mind-Altering Drugs be Legal?

This matter depends on a multitude of factors ranging from the harmfulness of drug abuse to the possible benefits of creating a legal, regulated system. Calls for legalisation usually refer to drugs perceived as being less harmful, and centre on the individual's right to choose. These calls, however, are answered with arguments based on the potential for increased harm, which tend to be compelling enough to maintain the status quo.

The need for drugs to be made legal is to a certain extent questionable, as those who intend to use drugs will do so regardless of the law. The matter of legality is thus more relevant in terms of making drug use safer and reducing the crime associated with illegal drug trafficking and dealing. A quick look at legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco just goes to show how difficult a matter this is.

Does the UK's Drug Policy Work?

Despite the 1964 and 1971 Acts, drug abuse in the UK has slowly worsened over time, although most drug-related deaths are among a minority who abuse the most harmful drugs. Despite large seizures of illegal substances by the police, illicit drugs continue to be relatively accessible and the street price of common drugs has continued to fall. Reduction of harm on an individual basis has been achieved through increased medical treatment of users and through schemes such as allowing the exchange of dirty needles for clean ones. However, despite the UK having one of the lowest rates of HIV infection amongst drug abusers in Europe, these approaches have had little effect on levels of drug use.

Little research has been conducted into the cost-effectiveness of different approaches to the problem. It is suspected that long prison sentences do not represent good value for money in terms of the effects on national drug abuse levels. In the end, it is difficult for drug policy to reduce national levels, with cultural factors being more often to blame. The impression given, however, is that the law is intended to scare off potential users and thus reduce levels of drug use. As a result, the public and the press often see the persistence of drug use in the face of these threats as a failing of the government. This reaction may lead to stricter drug laws which, if the reality of leniency for users of soft drugs continues, would only serve to make the Act look farcical.

1The Act may have gone some way to helping Jesse Boot, who by 1890 had a chain of 110 pharmacies nationwide.2Not to be confused with the Dangerous Dogs Act.3The following lists are correct as of January, 2009, and are certainly not exhaustive. The penalties listed are those available to the Crown Court – the maximum penalties available in magistrates' courts are less.

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