Drugs

Revealed: The UK Government Ignored Its Own Experts' Advice to Decriminalise Drugs

In 2016, for the first time, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs explicitly recommended decriminalising drug possession and use.
October 21, 2021, 8:00am
EMD8Y5
A man in London with a not entirely accurate sign. Photo: 

Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government ignored potentially life-saving advice from its own drug advisors, VICE can reveal.

In December of 2016, confidential proposals by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) explicitly recommended the decriminalisation of drug use for the first time, by repealing possession and usage laws. It is understood that those recommendations were dismissed by the Home Office, despite expert consensus that drug decriminalisation could reduce drug-related harms.

Advertisement

The Conservative government has faced criticism over its regressive drug policies and severe funding cuts to addiction treatment over the past decade, both of which have contributed to drug-related deaths reaching record levels in the UK. Many experts maintain that the government is more worried about appearing tough than saving the lives of people who use drugs, and there has been mounting concern about the situation within the ACMD.

The council had previously recommended schemes to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system, but the 2016 report proposed the repeal of the subsection of the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) that makes it a criminal offence to possess drugs without intent to supply.

“The Home Office is nervous about it being published because it goes so contrary to their line on decriminalisation: that they’re not going to do it, and that there’s no reason to,” said a researcher who has seen the report, who spoke to VICE on condition of anonymity due to reputational fears. 

A request for a copy of the report under transparency laws was made 18 months ago. It was rejected on debatable grounds amid lengthy delays, and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has now ruled that the Home Office was justified in preventing publication under a provision that shields pending policy discussions from public disclosure. A tribunal appeal has been lodged with justice authorities.

The researcher said: “The Home Office has frequently stated that ‘the government has no plans to decriminalise drug possession’. As usual, they want to have it both ways. It’s a live political issue when they want to hide inconvenient reports, but a dead political issue when they want to shut down debate.”

Advertisement

According to the ICO decision notice, the Home Office said: “The policy issues around the relationship between the 1971 Act and the 2016 Act and the control of drugs are by no means resolved, and remain the subject of active consideration, formulation and development. They certainly were so at the time of the request.”

It added: “The ACMD does routinely publish its advice to government. However, this report is a rare occasion of a piece of advice from the ACMD to ministers which was explicitly described by the ACMD as confidential and was not intended to be released into the public domain at any point. 

“It was not advice which was commissioned by the department and it was intended by the ACMD chair at that time to be a private sharing of views on a very controversial topic.”

It came as the ACMD warned that the January 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) would likely fail to reduce the supply of drugs such as spice and black mamba, and instead potentially cause dangerous consequences if not delivered as part of a raft of public health measures. 

Several years later, as the use of spice appeared to explode, the ACMD noted that at least two ambulance services had reported a rise in callouts linked with spice and black mamba. It added that spice deaths in Scotland had “considerably increased” after the act was introduced, while use in prisons had also appeared to rise.

Advertisement

It concluded: “It is not possible to identify whether the act led to an overall reduction in drug-related harm.” The increasing number of deaths from the synthetic drugs prohibited by the PSA, of which spice is the most notorious, was described as “a lethal epidemic fuelled by austerity”.

The ACMD recommendations were intended to harmonise an apparent contradiction between the MDA, which criminalises the possession and use of drugs, and the PSA, which does not. The rationale was that if there were no grounds to have an offence of possession under the PSA, then there was no reason to have such an offence in the MDA, it is understood.

The revelations come after the Scottish government last month moved towards decriminalising drug use and possession in an attempt to reduce record overdose deaths and quell an HIV crisis driven by drug injecting.

Scottish National Party MP Alison Thewliss, the party’s Westminster Treasury spokesperson, said the government has “routinely and, it seems, deliberately, overlooked” life-saving drug policy evidence. “In doing so they continue to fail those who are dying in our communities as a result of problem drug use,” she added.

Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine, the party’s Treasury spokesperson, said the government must not continue to ignore the ACMD. “The UK’s outdated drug laws are not what we need in the 21st century to protect our young people – they allow criminals to prey on our young people and drag them into their networks,” she added.

Advertisement

Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “The government will only follow expert evidence on reducing drug harms when it suits their short term political agenda. It is a shocking way to make policy and it is demonstrably costing lives.”

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, the UK’s national centre of expertise on drug laws, said: “With drug related deaths at an all time high, this is a damning indictment on the Home Office. Ignoring the evidence is costing lives."

The government issued its usual statement in relation to drug policy. “The government has no plans to decriminalise drug possession. It would not eliminate the crime associated with the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms and misery that drug addictions inflicts on users, families and communities,” a spokesperson said. 

“Our approach on drugs remains clear – we must prevent drug use in our communities, support people through treatment and recovery, and tackle the supply of illegal drugs.”

On background, they added that the Home Office was not bound by the advice of the ACMD. “There are rare instances of the ACMD requesting to provide the department with private advice, which they have no intention of publishing. In above cases, as the ICO ruled, it would not be appropriate to publish.”

@matthabusby