Drugs legislation requires review, says academic

The main piece of legislation used to combat illegal drug use in the UK is no longer fit for purpose, according to a leading criminologist at the University of Leicester.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced in 1971 to control the consumption and supply of psychoactive substances, with the 50th anniversary of the Act’s Royal Assent marked earlier in 2021.

Dr Tammy Ayres, Associate Professor in Criminology, has previously collaborated with academic colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, to dispel the ‘five fallacies of drug prohibition’ enshrined in UK law.

These include the tenuous connection between continued drug use and crime, as well as what the group describe as the so-called ‘drug apartheid’ which refers to the arbitrary division of substances referred to as ‘drugs’.

The drug apartheid has privileged the use of certain substances and outlawed the use of other non-privileged substances, which has resulted in a corrupt system that has much to do with who uses the drugs and little to do with the risks posed by the substances themselves.

Dr Ayres said: “The demarcation between drugs and non-drugs is arbitrary and disproportionately discriminates along the lines of class, race/ethnicity and gender.

“However, it is legitimised by a reductionist drug discourse that presents fallacy as fact and cements erroneous constructions of drugs that are incorporated into the wider public discourse as well as the public’s conscience, which is then enshrined in policy and legislation.”

Research by independent charity Release shows that, in the UK, Black people were stopped and searched for drugs at more than six times the rate of white people, while Asian people were stopped and searched at two-and-a-half times the rate. Those identifying as mixed race were stopped and searched for drugs at twice the rate of white people.

Black people caught in possession of cannabis by the Metropolitan Police are less likely to receive a cannabis warning than white people, and are five times more likely to be charged with an offence.

Dr Ayres added: “Despite the 50 years of harm, stigmatisation, criminalisation, social injustices and inequalities caused to certain populations, living in certain areas, and using certain drugs, the Misuse of Drugs Act – and its lack of scientific evidence base – remains the main piece of legislation arbitrarily governing the manufacture, supply and use of some substances (drugs) but not others (non-drugs), despite repeated calls for its reform.”

Dr Ayres will host the School of Criminology’s annual Scarman Lecture, under the title “Drugs and the Criminal Justice System in the UK” on Wednesday 29 September 2021 (5.00pm).

With experts from policing, the prison service, public health and Release, the panel will debate the ‘what works’ questions in relation to addressing how the criminal justice system responds to the challenges presented by substance use. Speakers include:

The panel will address the critical questions of how and if criminal justice systems should respond to substance use, and the efficacy of its interventions. This event is free and open to all.

Since 2008, the School of Criminology has invited high-profile guest speakers to deliver papers on current issues in criminology, criminal justice, policing and community safety. These lectures are open to staff and students of the University of Leicester, and to the general public.

The Scarman Lecture is named in honour of Lord Scarman, the first Chair of the Law Commission.