50 years of failure since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was passed into law.

50 years of failure since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was passed into law.


The prohibition of drugs has not stopped drug use. All the evidence points to a massive growth in the number of drug users. Mick Hall argues that drug laws are about social control and should be abolished now

We only need to look at the rise in registered heroin addicts and those on synthetic opioids to understand this.  In 1969 there were approximately 1,400 registered heroin addicts in the UK. Today the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands.  So how did we get here and how do we correct the errors of the past?

Until the late 1960s, the UK had some of the most liberal drug laws in the world which were based on a simple fact that people will always take narcotics, whether it’s for pleasure or to take the rough edges off of life. Thus it was understood that a small minority would become addicts and they were treated sympathetically.  Their GPs prescribed their drug of choice weekly or monthly and the addicts were expected to work and just get on with their lives. 

There was no psycho-babble back then about the causes of addiction.  It was taken as read that some users would inevitably fall by the wayside.  The law, imprisonment and ruined lives were never on the agenda.

A media-generated shitstorm emerged in the late 1960s/early 1970s about young working-class people taking drugs, mainly purple hearts when clubbing.  In 1971 the British government introduced new legislation which they claimed would stamp out illegal drugs for ever.  Apart for a cut and tuck here and there, it’s still on the statute book: the benchmark for how the UK deals with illegal drugs.

Once criminal elements realised there was no legal way heroin addicts and users could get a legal supply, they quickly moved into this lucrative trade. This wasn’t unpredictable as the British government had the failure of alcohol prohibition in the USA staring them in the face.

The way heroin addicts were treated after the Act was passed into law went from the sublime to the ridiculous.  They were demonised, criminalised, sent to jail, and adulterated drug use became the norm. 

Whatever one’s view on legalising and regulating all illicit drugs, if it’s done in an orderly way, then I’m for it.  The way addicts have been treated by the state over the last 50 years is an abomination. It has less to do with the drugs they take and everything to do with the 1971 legislation which has failed them miserably. The war on drugs is an infantile exercise which no government can win, no matter how harshly they try. It’s time for change.

Today there are 50 MPs who support changing the law on drugs and well done to them, but that still leaves 600 who are too cowardly or stupid to put their heads above the parapet and vote the current legislation down. 

As Simon Jenkins wrote in a recent article:

“There is no longer any debate.  Fifty years of British failure and years of foreign efforts at reform show only one thing: that the criminal law is counterproductive.  It is game, set and match to reform.  Yet terror of any change seems to grip politicians in power.  The can is carried by those on the frontline – the police, prison officers, doctors and social workers.  Modern democracy is driven not by evidence but by fear.  We all know that, sooner or later, the dangers of drug abuse must be tamed, as we try to tame the dangers of alcohol and gambling.  But in Britain we must wait for foreigners to show us the way.  This is not about facts but about courage.”

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