25th March 2021
A new Private Members' Bill tabled in the UK Parliament this week challenges the Misuse of Drugs Act's 50 years of failure.
The Bill proposals include a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, decriminalisation of drug possession, and supervised drug consumption facilities
The Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) is 50 years old this year. By all measures, it has catastrophically failed its legislative goals. Aiming to deter use and stifle supply, the past 50 years of the MDA have seen the precise opposite; drugs are cheaper, more available, more potent, more widely used, and associated with greater levels of illness and death than ever before. As we have spent more and more money enforcing the Act, criminalising millions and filling our already overcrowded prisons, the illegal market - and the violence and exploitation that so often accompany it - has continued to expand.
This is an absurd and damaging state of affairs that needs to be rectified. We cannot have drug policy designed in a different era, but frozen in time, and we cannot allow the harms caused by this Act to continue simply because they represent the status quo. We urgently need root and branch reform, and we need a level of political engagement that befits such a critical social issue.
The new Problem Drugs Bill — tabled by Tommy Sheppard MP — provides a unique opportunity for the deadlock on this issue to be broken. It sets out a series of principles that reformers from all sides of the political spectrum should be able to support — even if they differ on longer-term outcomes. Critically, it seeks to reframe drug policy as a health issue, rather than one oriented around criminalisation. That means moving responsibility for drug policy from the Home Office to the Department for Health and Social Care, as well as allowing devolved authorities more flexibility to respond to local conditions appropriately. It also calls for immediate reforms to address the current crisis — including declaring a public health emergency, ending the criminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, and facilitating legal pilots of safer drugs consumption facilities (overdose prevention centres).
It also calls for a fundamental review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This would allow not only a review of the classification system, but a fundamental reconsideration of our legal framework for drug policy. As Transform and so many others have been arguing for many years, this is something that cannot, and should not, be delayed any longer. The systemic failures of the MDA over five decades show it is a long way from being ‘roughly right’. law that has been causing harm for generations cannot be left unchallenged. The continuing failure to subject it to the critique it urgently needs shows something is very wrong in the political environment on this issue. Politicians who recognise the failure of drug policy need to stand up and be heard — and our wider political culture needs to grow up, and accept that this debate should no longer be taboo.
What does the Bill propose?
You can read the full text of the Bill here, but key proposals include:
Shifting lead departmental responsibility for drugs
On the basis that ‘drug use is primarily a health issue, not a criminal justice issue’ (the the Bill calls the “the health issue principle”) it proposes that lead responsibility for drugs move from the Home Office to Department for Health and Social Care in England, and review options for devolution of drug policy powers to the devolved administrations.
Declare problem drug use to be a public health emergency
Review the ‘structure and utility’ of the drug classification system
The classification system (that classifies drugs as A, B, C, nominally according to relative harms, as the basis of a hierarchy of punitive sanctions) has long been the subject of criticism, both for unscientific misclassifications of certain drugs, and its wider function.
Notably, the Bill also proposes that: ‘The review must consider the possibility of establishing a new category of drugs subject to regulated availability for non-medical use’ — providing some welcome space for exploring the possibility of regulated availability of some drugs.
Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
The Bill further proposes a more wide ranging review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and ‘the wider associated legislative framework around drug use’ rooted in the ‘the health issue principle’.
Decriminalisation of the possession of small quantities of drugs
The Bill proposes the removal of criminal sanctions for possession of small quantities of all drugs (controlled under the MDA) for personal use. This is not a comprehensive decriminalisation proposal, but would be a hugely important step in ending harmful and counterproductive criminalisation of people who use drugs.
Safer drug consumption facilities
The Bill seeks for regulations to be adapted to ‘provide for one or more pilots of safer drug consumption facilities’ (overdose prevention centres)
Reviewing welfare provision conditionalities for people who use drugs
Concerned with the potential denial of access to welfare services for people who drugs, the Bill proposes a review of the impacts that certain existing requirements related to drug use (usually abstention) have on reducing welfare access
Destigmatisation of drug use
The Bill proposes public bodies be required to report regularly on efforts made to challenge harmful stigmatisation of people who use drugs
The Bill proposes that addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs is considered an ‘impairment’ within the scope of the Equality Act 2010 — meaning people experiencing addiction are brought within its protections
What happens now?
The Bill is a ‘Private Members’ Bill’, and does not have the backing of the Government. Such Bills rarely progress into law in tabled form, but they can have significant influence on parliamentary debate and legislation — providing a rallying point for MPs from all parties who support reform. Where parliamentary and public support is evident Private Members' Bills can more commonly prompt Government to propose their own similar legislation, or adopt parts of the Bill in other forms.
Key to maximising impact of the Bill is building parliamentary support so we urge you to contact your MP and encourage them to support the Bill and engage with the ideas and proposals it contains. The Bill’s second reading debate will be announced in due course and will be the first key opportunity for parliamentary engagement.
The Bill presents a unique opportunity, on the Misuse of Drugs Act’s 50th anniversary, to challenge its conceptual and institutional failings, expose it to some long overdue scrutiny, and address the immediate crisis as well as preparing the ground for longer term structural reforms.