The UK Has Wasted 50 Years Fighting a Losing War on Drugs

On the 50th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act, VICE World News analysis shows just how catastrophically it has failed.
May 26, 2021, 8:15am
EMB9TJ

Drug-related deaths, prevalence of use and the availability of drugs have all skyrocketed in the UK since the current prohibition regime was introduced 50 years ago this week, analysis of historic data shows.

The foremost aim of the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), passed by parliament in 1971, was to prevent or decrease the use of the drugs it prohibited. However, with some inevitable fluctuations and variations between drugs, use has increased unyieldingly.

Advertisement

The MDA may not have caused this rise in use, but reform advocates argue that the act should be judged against its own stated objectives – which, on all counts, it has objectively failed.

Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said of the MDA: “Despite the untold billions spent, it has utterly failed in its goals to reduce use and health harms, but has criminalised millions and fuelled a dangerous illegal trade here and around the world.”

A leaked government report from 2005 estimates that seizure rates have never exceeded 20 percent of all drugs that make it into the country. Another study suggests that heroin seizures in Scotland have typically amounted to just 1 percent of what is consumed.

While the volume of confiscated cocaine has increased by more than 650 times since the 1970s, to 4,274 kg in 2019, the amount of the drug in circulation is many times that. Police boasts of preventing tons of seized coke from “reaching the streets” have done little to stop the UK from having the highest rate of cocaine use in Europe.

The grim cost of the MDA’s failure is most starkly traced through drug-related death statistics. The number of fatalities rose slowly in the early-70s, before a steep rise towards the end of the decade, which accelerated further in the 80s.

Advertisement

Data before 1993 is relatively patchy, but according to official mortality statistics unearthed by Transform and analysed by VICE World News, fewer than 100 people died due to drug misuse in 1971. By 1987, the annual total in England and Wales had passed 200, and by the time a more comprehensive monitoring framework was finally put in place in 1993, the total had reached 831, exceeding 1,000 for the first time in 1995. 

This number had risen to 2,883 in 2019 – a record high, representing close to a 3,000 percent rise over the half century. This time period also saw Scotland become Europe’s drug death capital, with a mortality rate ten times the EU average. 

Before systematic national monitoring began in the mid-90s, there are just a handful of snapshot surveys on how many people were using drugs. In the late 1960s, it was estimated that less than 5 percent of young people had used an illegal drug. By 1995, that figure had risen to almost 50 percent. Today, the rate of illegal drug use in the UK is one of the highest in the world, with more than a third of people in England and Wales estimated to have taken drugs.

Surveys and modelling suggest that the prevalence of cannabis use has increased more than fivefold in the 50 years since the passing of the act, reaching at least 2.5 million people. The UK often sees the most annual weed seizures in Europe, and it’s thought that up to 90 percent of the UK’s supply is now grown domestically.

Advertisement

There is no useful survey data from the time the act was introduced, but in 1970 a Home Office “Addicts Index” of doctor-notified people using heroin numbered below 1,000 (of 2,661 notified users of all drugs). While this likely does not represent the true scale of usage at the time, it is a fraction of the 141,189 people who sought treatment for opiate use in England and Wales in 2018-19.

Use of other drugs, such as MDMA and ketamine, has also surged from the late 1980s onwards.

2CJYG4W.jpg

Cocaine from Britain's then-largest cocaine seizure is displayed by UK Border Agency staff in London in 2011. Photo: REUTERS / Stefan Wermuth / Alamy Stock Photo

Warnings that the £9 billion market is becoming increasingly violent are increasing. Carol Black, the author of a Home Office-commissioned review into drugs, noted in February that drugs appear to be a major driver of recent increases in serious violence.

Home Office analysis estimates that the social and economic costs caused by illegal drugs to society and the criminal justice system amount to around £20 billion per year – twice the value of the estimated £9 billion market – while only £680 million is spent on treatment and prevention. Instead, the state’s solution tends to be criminalisation and incarceration.

Advertisement

More than a third of imprisoned people are inside because of drug-related crime, and the average six-week sentence gives limited time for treatment, according to Black. These sentences are therefore widely regarded as a social tax and an occupational hazard – and to make matters worse, one-in-seven prisoners in the UK become dependent on drugs inside.

Before the MDA’s introduction, there were warnings of the unintended consequences of prohibition in both parliament and civil society. A 1967 advertisement in The Times, paid for by The Beatles, cautioned that it provides “a potential breeding ground for many forms of drug abuse and gangsterism”. It said: “Similar legislation in America in the ‘20s brought the sale of both alcohol and heroin under the control of an immensely powerful criminal conspiracy which still thrives today. We in Britain must not lose sight of the parallel.”

When the MDA was being debated in the House of Lords, criminologist Barbara Wootton foreshadowed today’s tensions over stop and search, which disproportionately affects Black men in London by a rate of 19, saying, “What we view with alarm, from the point of view of individual liberty, is that searches should be made on suspicion – a suspicion which, as I tried to point out to the committee, in the great majority of instances cannot be based on any really solid grounds.”

Advertisement

Somewhat bizarrely, then-Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling appeared to acknowledge the inherent contradictions of the legislation. “It is deplorable to see people drinking themselves into cirrhosis or smoking themselves into lung cancer, but nobody proposes that either activity should be prohibited by law,” he told the Commons, later adding: “Making something illegal sometimes causes it to be more attractive to some people.”

Serious concerns also existed over how prohibition was empowering corrupt police officers. In the 1960s, the National Civil Liberties Council warned that drugs were allegedly on occasion being planted on suspected cannabis smokers, and it has since been acknowledged as a common drug squad practice.

A 1968 Home Office report into cannabis concluded, “There is no evidence that [cannabis use] is causing violent crime or aggression, anti-social behaviour, or is producing in otherwise normal people conditions of dependence or psychosis requiring medical treatment.” It advocated a policy aimed at suppressing excessive use and “restraining the moderate use within due limits”, largely through taxation as part of a system of licensed and centralised cultivation.

The disaster of the past 50 years has not gone unnoticed, with more than 40 MPs and peers last month condemning the Misuse of Drugs Act as unfit for purpose, criticising it as failing to reduce consumption and increasing harm, and calling for immediate reform to protect human rights, promote public health and ensure social justice.