Past its sell-by date

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The latest APPG for Drug Policy Reform meeting was held on the 50th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act – legislation that was very much no longer fit for purpose, delegates heard.

misuse of drugs act‘The Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced at a time when a woman could be legally sacked for being pregnant, smoking was normal everywhere from cinemas to doctors’ waiting rooms, and The Black and White Minstrel Show was a staple of prime-time BBC,’ Transform chief executive James Nicholls told an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform event to mark the act’s 50th anniversary. Held in collaboration with Transform and the Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Cross-party group, the meeting reflected on the act’s legacy and what needed to change.

‘One of the most important areas of social policy is still bound by legislation passed 50 years ago,’ said Nicholls. ‘That’s a long time for any legislation to stay in place without amendment or reform’ – particularly as so much had since changed around issues like use, attitudes, harm and availability.

It wasn’t just that the act was out of date, he said. ‘It’s not fit for purpose, and most obviously it’s failed dramatically to achieve its own aims.’ Aside even from drug death rates, there had so far been 1.8m convictions under the act across the UK, and three million criminal records including cautions – ‘that’s a lot of people who’ve been criminalised.’ Despite all the evidence of failure, however, there remained ‘an extraordinary political taboo on discussing how we got this policy so wrong and the changes we can introduce to rectify things. To say that “this is the best we can do” is to accept that the failures we see all around us should simply remain in place.’

Making it worse

The current laws ‘paradoxically make things worse’ in that they encouraged the use of more harmful substances, said chair of Drug Science and former ACMD chair Professor David Nutt. ‘Alcohol isn’t the most harmful drug to the user, but it’s the most destructive drug, by far, to people who don’t use it.’

Drugs that caused relatively less harm to the user – and vanishingly small harm to society – such as ecstasy, LSD and mushrooms were subject to harsh legislation, with the UN conventions that the UK ‘followed slavishly’ seriously damaging research into the potential benefits of psychedelics, for example in treating depression and other conditions. ‘It’s the worst censorship of research in the history of the world,’ he stated. ‘Never has access to a research tool been so effectively demolished by any kind of control. You might argue that these controls are necessary to reduce recreational use or harm, but there’s virtually no evidence that they have. It’s the worst of all worlds.’

Ray Lakeman
Ray Lakeman

Ray Lakeman, campaigner for Anyone’s Child, told the meeting how both of his sons had died from an MDMA overdose. ‘When I talked to their friends at the funeral, one of the things that came across was that although they were shocked and saddened they weren’t going to stop taking drugs,’ he said. ‘They just wanted their drugs to be safer.’

At their inquest pathologists, police, and the coroner were discussing ‘recreational’ doses of MDMA, he continued. ‘So the authorities knew this drug could be made safe, but because the drug was unregulated my sons had no way of knowing what they’d taken. People are going to take drugs, so we should have policies in place that protect them. The only way I can see of doing that is regulating the drugs that are available.’

A blunt tool

When it came to policing, it had been neither fair nor evidence-based, said Katrina Ffrench, founding director of Unjust CIC, which challenges discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system. The Misuse of Drugs Act had, however, been used ‘for decades to over-police black British communities’ she said. ‘And although those communities aren’t more likely to use drugs than their white counterparts, they’re much more likely to be stopped and searched – research shows up to nine times more likely.’

This ‘blunt policing tool’ compounded the damage by putting more people into the criminal justice system and harming the relationships black, Asian, ethnic minority and white working-class communities had with the police, she stated. ‘It results in a toxic distrust. The narrative that’s put out is that it’s all about protection, when actually it’s about marginalisation and alienation.’

Ruthless policy

Neil Woods
Neil Woods

Former undercover drugs officer, Neil Woods, shared some of his often-harrowing experiences as an undercover drugs officer. ‘I used to seek out the most vulnerable people, because they were the easiest to manipulate,’ he said. ‘If that seems ruthless, it is – that’s the essence of a punitive drug policy.’

After being arrested, one person had ended up on minute-to-minute suicide watch in his cell. ‘He thought I was his one friend in the world, someone he could open up to about his abusive father and the reasons for his problematic heroin use. My betrayal tipped him over the edge. I was aware I was causing emotional harm, but I carried on doing the work because I’d rationalised that the end justified the means.’ This ruthlessness was a key part of drug policy at every level, he said – ‘the belief that we can cause harm in order to achieve some victory.’

Later he infiltrated a notorious drug gang that used gang rape as part of their ‘reputation building’, he told the meeting. ‘They were doing the normal gangster things like kidnappings and maimings but they were most notable for their sexual violence.’ After seven months of highly dangerous work he’d gathered evidence on almost 100 people – ‘the six main gangsters running the supply and 90 of their back-up staff, the runners, the sex workers, the people stashing the money and the drugs. I was jubilant – I’d literally caught everybody.’

The operation had involved police from five different counties and a ‘huge amount’ of resources, he said. ‘Then a week or so after the dust had settled I spoke to the intelligence officer tasked with finding out the impact. He said, “Yes, we managed to interrupt the heroin and crack supply – for two hours.” If you’re a problematic heroin user that isn’t even enough time to withdraw.’

The illusion of success

Every time a policing body claimed success in drug enforcement it was ‘an illusion’, he stated. ‘All it does is create an opportunity for a rival. And quite often a rival gang will use the mechanism of the system, through informants, to get the police to take out their opposition.’ While the police were ‘really, really good’ at catching drug dealers – ‘if you give them twice the resources they’ll catch twice as many’ – this never changed the size of the market, only its shape. ‘When you take out the gang that controls the drugs in one half of a city, the gang most able to take advantage is the one that controls the other half.’

Only health-based solutions could reduce the power of organised crime, he stressed. ‘The gangsters on our streets and around the world love the current system. The more hostile the system, the more they’ll thrive. The greater the threat of prosecution, the greater the violence to stop people informing. That’s the way it works.’

Punishing the vulnerable

‘If people are still dying in increasing numbers, the strategy clearly isn’t working,’ said head of engagement at the Royal Society for Public Health, Laura Furness. ‘And that’s before you start looking at other health harms – 60 per cent of people who inject drugs report skin and soft tissue infections, which can lead to limb amputation, kidney failure and death. The criminal justice approach we have is that we punish some of the most vulnerable people in our society.’

Public consultations had found that most people felt the current classification system was confused, inconsistent and arbitrary, she said – ‘and it means that opportunities to reduce harms by helping people to make informed choices and understand the risks are missed.’ Criminalisation exacerbated health and wellbeing inequalities, she said, while the criminal status of drugs deterred people from seeking help. ‘We want to see creation of evidence-based drug harm profiles to replace the existing classification system.’

‘Things should change, things can change, and globally things are changing,’ said Nicholls. ‘This act certainly won’t be in place in another 50 years’ time, so it’s a matter of when not if it’s reformed. We’re really hopeful that this year will mark a sea change and see the beginning of the end of 50 years not just of political failure, but also the political silence that has allowed that failure to continue unabated.’