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Control of Drug Abuse in the United Kingdom: Time For A Change In Policy?

Siobhan MacMaster, 4th Year LLB and 2014/15 Law Society President, wonders whether a change in policy is required to tackle drug abuse in the United Kingdom.

With the increasing number of drugs available in today’s world, proper regulation of their use is imperative. Here and now, there are several pieces of legislation which seek to offer a framework to regulate the use and distribution of certain drugs, and also classify them – including the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Misuse of Drugs (Regulations) 1985, to name but two.[1] An examination of the substances themselves and current system and legislation should reveal the successes and failures inherent within them which we can improve upon in order to provide us with the best possible mechanisms to prevent drug related crimes and deaths, in the UK. Further, we will address the mounting pressure which exists in relation to the decriminalisation of drug use in the UK, as has been witnessed in some states in America.

Drug abuse is far from a novel phenomenon. From the 19th century when laudanum and opium were the drugs of choice prior to the 1868 Pharmacy Act, to the 1908 Pharmacy Act in relation to morphine, cocaine and opium derivatives, to the present day where New Psychoactive Substances are becoming more common, there have been many developments in the regulation and criminalisation of drug use.[2] The current legislation that exists in the UK comprises of: Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and Misuse of Drugs Act (Regulations) 1985 and 2001.

Firstly, the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 was a huge step towards international drug protocols. It contains four schedules, ranging from most to least restrictive. The introduction and implementation of the 1971 Act was introduced to meet the Treaty obligations and has an ‘analogous scheme of drug scheduling, with drugs considered the most harmful such as heroin and cocaine, classed as Class A drugs.’

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 includes classification of numerous drugs into three classes, with Class A being the most serious, B the next most and C the least. The classes and drugs included in these tables are constantly being amended with the appearance and disappearance of drugs as time progresses. The Act also provides in s1 that there shall be an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who will be responsible for the review of the situation in relation to drugs being misused within the UK, give advice to Government on measures ‘which, in the opinion of the Council, ought to be taken for preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with social problems connected with their misuse’, as well as on measures they believe should be implemented such as education, prevention and promotion of interdepartmental workings in order to achieve the end goal. The Act also prohibits the importation and exportation of controlled substances under s3, production, supply or offer to supply under s4 and possession under s5.

Further, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 also details the powers that law enforcement officials possess alongside the punishments that those who commit drug related offences may face. Perhaps the most important of these powers is that of the ability to search and obtain evidence from properties, vehicles/vessels or persons where there is reasonable suspicion that they may be in possession of drug-related substances.[3] Warrants can also be issued (dependent on the jurisdiction in question) by a justice of the peace, a magistrate or a sheriff on the grounds that they are satisfied that the reasonable suspicion threshold has been met by the party asking for its issuance. Section 24 details the circumstances in which a person may be arrested on suspicion of drug related offences whilst Schedule 4 to the Act details the various penalties which those accused of drug related offences may face, from life imprisonment to a simple fine depending upon the means by which the trial is carried out and the class of the drug involved.

When the New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’ as they are sometimes referred to, began to become more common in 2011, the Home Office funded a Forensic Early Warning System as a response to this growing trend. NPS are often synthetic drugs manufactured in a laboratory or factory (mainly based overseas) to mimic the effects of already controlled drugs and are used mainly as recreational drugs in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.[4] The increased development and availability of NPS via internet sales and its appearance in blogs and forums is changing the way that the drugs culture is developing in the UK and the number of people who are exposed to its existence and so expanding the possibilities for the harm that they can cause.

Further, the Misuse of Drugs (Regulations) 1985 and 2001, have aided in the amendment of the 1971 Act, and allowed there to continue to be updates inserted as the face of drugs changes over the years. Even in 2014, there have been developments and subsequently amendments made to the legislation in order to include the supply of aluminium foil as part of drug treatment, to be permitted to those responsible for the treatment of the patients, in some circumstances.

With regards to the substances themselves, their chemical make-up can be remarkably similar to one another, causing the identification process to be prolonged. Those, which are particularly prevalent within the UK, include NPS, heroin, cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines amongst others. Due to their genetic properties, each can have very different effects upon the user. For example, heroin is an opiate that acts as a Central Nervous System depressant and causes the user to experience a high, but clouds judgment due to the depression of the nervous system.[5] On the other hand, cocaine is classed as a stimulant that causes excess amounts of dopamine in the brain, causing the user to experience a period of euphoria before the ‘come down’ when the effects wear off. Moreover, there are various methods by which the drugs can be ingested: via injection, tablet or as cigarette, for example. The method also determines how rapidly the effects will take place.

A rather contentious area of debate surrounding drug users is the relationship between drug use and criminality. Whilst some authors argue that it is due to ‘economic necessity’, others believe that the two are linked since their drug use has caused the person in question to become ‘immersed in a deviant world in order to obtain drug supplies.’[6]

Interestingly, the factors associated with why people experiment with drugs suggests that one’s early life experiences, family relationships and circumstances, and parental attitudes and behaviours can all play a part. In the figures for Scottish drug related deaths in 2013, there were 526 registered, which was 55% fewer than 2012. 75% of those were male; with 184 of the deaths being of persons aged between 35-44 and 137 being of persons aged between 25-34.[7] A survey conducted of arrestees in England and Wales found that in 2005/2006, the most common reasons for arrest were shoplifting and assault. However, those surveyed who regularly ingested heroin or crack cocaine were most likely to have been arrested for shoplifting (37%), followed by burglary (14%).[8] This shows that, at least in this instance, there appeared to be a correlation between drug use and related crimes perhaps reinforcing the views of those cited above.

The adverse effects of drug abuse are also very serious, and should not be ignored. ‘Neuropsychological functioning persists for at least a year in people who have given up illicit stimulant drugs’ and in particular, these former users performed significantly worse in the areas of attention and motor skills.[9] Other studies have found that the prolonged use of cannabis can cause brain abnormalities in drug users. This is reinforced with animal studies, and also consistent with findings that cannabis can increase the risk of psychotic symptoms in users. A reduction in the amygdala was also noted. Both of these parts of the brain are involved in memory retention, decision-making and emotional reactions, which would explain the deficits that are often found in long-term users of cannabis.[10]

On the whole, the current system is quite comprehensive with regards to the criminalisation of drug use and the penalties and powers that are available to law enforcement authorities. However, there is always room for improvement in such policies. It would appear that much of the current system is geared towards punishment of the users, rather than their rehabilitation. In England, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse is a body responsible for aiding those who misuse drugs to rehabilitate themselves and promote effective treatment for drug misuse. This is an encouraging programme, which should be emulated globally to provide a nurturing environment for those who wish to seek help for their addiction. Also, the NTA has pioneered the Integrated Drug Treatment System to allow prisoners to seek help, too.[11] This would appear to be beneficial since a large number of the prison population would, from prior studies and surveys, appear to be current or struggling drug abusers.

Moreover, Government must address the issue of the decriminalisation of drugs in full so that a comprehensive statement or plan can be issued with regards to the future and what it holds. As has been seen in America very recently, and in Portugal several years ago, decriminalisation is not as drastic as it may seem at first glance, and appears to have had positive results in the jurisdictions mentioned. However, if this was to be implemented in the United Kingdom, a detailed plan of action would have to be created, detailing exactly what drugs were to be decriminalised and which were still to be controlled – this is related to the rule of law and the fact that citizens must be aware of the laws which govern them if they could potential face criminal law penalties for their actions. Education is also of paramount importance, and should begin at a young age so that people are fully informed prior to their decisions to take or refuse drugs.

Although there have been many advances in regards to the regulation of drugs within the UK in recent years, it appears that improvements and tweaks could still be made in order to aid those in need of help in more aspects of their lives. The war on drugs is not an easy fight, but especially in the UK, a great deal of thought must be had in regard to whether decriminalisation is a viable option in the near future; or if not, what the next best step would be. The education of young people also must be improved in order to attempt to decrease the amount of young people who use drugs in the future. Therefore, despite the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the current legislation and penalties available within the United Kingdom, substance misuse is a continuing problem, which must be addressed sooner rather than later to help prevent future users from the same fates as those who have abused are currently facing.


[1] Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; Misuse of Drugs (Regulations) 1985 – available at: (last accessed: 22/10/2014).

[2] BMA Board of Science Drug Policy in the UK: From the 19th Century to the Present Day.

[3] s23, Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – available at: (last accessed: 22/10/2014).

[4] Home Office Annual Report on the Home Office Early Warning System: A System to Identify New Psychoactive Substances in the UK Home Office: 2012.

[5] Available at: (last accessed: 22/10/2014).


[6] British Journal of Addiction Editorial: Links Between Drug Misuse and Crime British Journal of Addiction (1990) 85, 833-835.

[7] National Records of Scotland Drug Related Deaths in Scotland National Statistics for Scotland: 2011.

[8] Boreham, R; Cronberg, A; Dollin, L and Pudney, S Home Office Statistical Bulletin: The Arrestee Survey Home Office: 2007.

[9] Toomey, R et al (2003), A Twin Study of the Neuropsychological Consequences of Stimulant Abuse Archives of General 60, 3, 303 - 310 Psychiatry Digest.

[10] Yucel, M; Solowij, N et alRegional Brain Abnormalities Associated with Long Term Heavy Cannabis Use American Medical Association: 2008.

[11] National Treatment Agency for Drugs Misuse Breaking the Link: The Role of Drug Treatment in Tackling Crime NHS: 2009.



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