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Legal History

50 Years of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

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On 27 May, it is exactly fifty years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA), the UK’s primary legislation for controlling drugs, received Royal Assent.

The Act arranged drugs into a three-tier classification system – A, B and C – with controls based on the perceived relative harm of different substances. Now the legislation is at the centre of a campaign by Transform Drug Policy who are calling for an overhaul of the law which the organisation considers having represented ‘50 years of failure’. 

One of the rationales behind the MDA was to consolidate the existing patchwork of legislation that had developed in the UK since the Pharmacy Act of 1868. This was the first time Parliament recognised a risk to the public from ‘poisoning’ and the 1868 Act distinguished between substances that were ‘toxic’ (poisons) and substances that were both ‘toxic’ and ‘addictive’ (‘dangerous drugs’). 

Some of these so-called ‘drugs of addiction’ were later subject to further controls under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 (DDA) which introduced prescriptions and criminalised unauthorised possession of opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine. 

Whilst this did represent a continuation of wartime drug control efforts it was also the result of a racist media-led panic around Chinese opium dens, as well as being a response to international moves toward uniformity on drug regulation. 

The DDA was later clarified by the Departmental Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction in their 1926 ‘Rolleston Report’. This formed an interpretation of the Act that became known as the ‘British System’, framing ‘drug addiction’ as a medical issue rather than a moral failing. 

By the 1950s, drugs were becoming increasingly connected in public consciousness with youth subculture and – especially in the tabloid press – black communities and the London jazz scene, stoking further moral panic. 

By 1958, the British Medical Journal observed that the regulations around drugs and poisons were already ‘rather complicated’.[1] This picture was complicated yet further by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which laid out an international regime of drug control, ratified in the UK in 1964 by another Dangerous Drugs Act

Another committee was also formed under the Chairmanship of Lord Brain, ultimately leading to (yet another) Dangerous Drugs Act in 1967 which held onto the principles of the ‘British System’ but introduced new stipulations, such as requiring doctors to apply for a licence from the Home Office for certain prescriptions. 

During the 1960s, drugs continued to be associated in popular imagination with youth, with most attention by 1967 on the ‘Counterculture’ and ‘the hippies’, and in particular their use of cannabis and LSD. That same year, Mick Jagger’s country retreat in Redlands was raided by the drugs squad in a bust that was symbolic of a broader clash of ideologies.

The arrest and harsh sentencing of Jagger, Keith Richards and their friend Robert Fraser prompted William Rees-Mogg’s famous Times editorial ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?’ on 1 July 1967. This became part of a wider public debate on drug use and on 16 July a ‘Legalise Pot’ rally took place in Hyde park, followed on 24 July by a full-page advert (paid for by Paul McCartney) in the Times calling for cannabis law reform.  

Imaginatively, the Government decided to convene another committee, this time under Baroness Wootton. Its report, published at the end of 1968, argued that whilst it did not think cannabis should be legalised, it should be made distinct in law from other illegal drugs. 

Finally in 1970, Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced a new Bill that was described during its passage through Parliament as an attempt to replace ‘…the present rigid and ramshackle collection of drug Acts by a single comprehensive measure’.[2] But the Bill was as ideological as it was pragmatic, and Callaghan himself had rejected the recommendations of Wootton.

The debates in both the Commons and the Lords indicate that not only did most Members of Parliament who spoke on the subject have little understanding of the complexities of drug use, but also that the theme of the ‘permissive society’ and its supposed excesses was central.

The Bill was approved in May 1971, given Royal Assent the same month and fully implemented after two more years. The Act also established the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), tasked with keeping the drug situation in the UK under review. 

Successive governments have tended to accept the recommendations of the Council but there have been clashes, such as in 2009 when there was a total breakdown of relations when Professor David Nutt, then Chair of the Council, was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after Nutt had claimed – with substantial evidence – that MDMA and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. 

For all of this, what has actually been the impact of the MDA? Well, as Simon Jenkins recently pointed out in a blog for the Guardian, 27,000 children and teenagers are now involved in ‘country lines’ drug gangs. Jenkins had previously described the MDA as a law that has done ‘less good and more harm’ than any other law on the statute book.

It is difficult to argue with this. Far from stemming recreational drug use, use of illegal drugs only increased after the MDA and became endemic in cities during the 1980s as heroin became a significant social issue. In 1979, the number of notified heroin users exceeded 1,000 for the first time. 

Over the 1980s and 1990s, drugs like MDMA were also increasingly used to enhance users’ experiences, especially in rave contexts, yet the Government line remained the same. As drug and harm reduction expert Julian Buchanan argued in 2000, ‘two decades of prevention, prohibition and punishment have had little noticeable impact upon the growing use of illegal drugs’.[3]

The MDA also deterred drug users from seeking help for fear of legal repercussions and limited the opportunities of countless young people. Last year, Adam Holland noted in the Harm Reduction Journal that in the UK, drug-related deaths were at the highest level on record and that although enormous time and money has gone into combating the illicit drugs trade, the market has not stopped growing.[4]

Writing thirty years after the MDA, Buchanan had argued that a ‘bold and radical rethink of UK drug policy’ was needed. Such a rethink never materialised. In 2019, the House of Commons Select Committee on Drug Policy concluded that ‘UK drugs policy is failing’. Now after half a century it might be time for real radical change, and the anniversary presents a great opportunity for this conversation to gain momentum. 

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


[1] John Glaister and Edgar Rentoul, ‘The Control of the Sale of Poisons and Dangerous Drugs’, British Medical Journal (1958;2), p. 1525.

[2] House of Lords debate (October 1969), Hansard volume 790, cols 189-90.

[3] Julian Buchanan and L. Young, ‘The War on Drugs—A War on Drug Users’, Drugs: Education, Prevention, Policy 7:4 (2000), pp. 409-22.

[4] Adam Holland, ‘An ethical analysis of UK drug policy as an example of a criminal justice approach to drugs: a commentary on the short film Putting UK Drug Policy into Focus’, Harm Reduction Journal 17:97 (2020).

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When Courts Adjudicate History: The Ayodhya Verdict

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India witnessed one of its worst religious riots in 1992, when unruly mobs demolished a mosque built by the first Mughal ruler, supposedly on the exact site in Ayodhya where Lord Ram, of the Hindu pantheon, was born. In a sense, though, these mobs were not unruly at all – they had gathered with the specific intent of carrying out the demolition, were spurred into action by rousing speeches given by political leaders, and had been nourished on fake videos of Muslim brutality toward a majority Hindu population. The demolition set in motion nation-wide riots, and inaugurated a militant phase of Hindu right-wing politics that has culminated in the BJP — India’s largest Hindu right-wing party — coming into power with a thumping majority.

This episode has come back to haunt us again, as the Supreme Court of India passed its verdict last Saturday on whether or not a temple could be built on the site of the demolished mosque. Many aspects of 6 December 1992 (the day of the demolition) were replicated on Saturday: tens of thousands of people were, once again, gathered in Ayodhya; schools and colleges were shut across several states, as everyone kept a suspenseful watch on events of the day; and incendiary fake videos on social media had primed its audience for militant and aggressive action. Perhaps the only saving grace, on this occasion, was that national elections had occurred recently, and a riot was not going to serve the interests of any political party.

In this entire episode, what was most interesting for historians was the Supreme Court’s approach toward the past. The court appeared to have willingly assumed the mantle of a historian, going through several documents to decide whether Hindus had always believed in the holiness of the site. The choice of documents was fairly eclectic, ranging from religious scriptures, to travelogues by medieval Chinese travellers, to gazetteers and travelogues written by colonial officials.[1] All of these appear to have been given the same historical weight, without making any allowances for the potential biases of their authors. Indeed, colonial officials were often referred to as ‘historians’ in court hearings, their opinion being taken as accurate.[2] The overall strategy consisted of combing through documents for any sentence or phrase that referred directly or obliquely to either a temple, or the Hindu belief that this site was the birthplace of Lord Ram. Such an approach is bound to lead to a very warped view of the past, and is a good example of how a fetish for empiricism might drive us further away from a considered view of history – something that first year undergraduate students are taught in universities.

What is also equally significant is the court’s reluctance to allow historians to get involved in the court proceedings. Their opinions were not sought by the court, and even a famous statement released by a group of historians in the wake of the riots in 1992 was dismissed as unreliable.[3] Indeed, prominent historians of ancient India have given interviews to media channels on the issue, but not been summoned by the Supreme Court to give evidence. As one of the doyens of ancient history noted in an interview to Frontline: ‘In order to resolve the dispute over fact, the best thing is to have…historians sit in front of the court and debate. The court could then decide on what convinces it on the basis of rationality.’[4] The court’s unwillingness to do so either reflects its confidence in identifying the ‘correct’ view of history, or the fact that it has been persuaded by Hindu right-wing propaganda that most existing histories are unreliable, biased, or anti-Hindu.

Clearly, at least in this particular case, history is not merely the subject of dry academic debates – it has the potential to affect the lives of more than a billion people. By allowing Hindu groups to construct a temple on the site, while giving permission to Muslim groups to build a mosque on a separate 5-acre plot, the court has tried to carry out the task of calming down violent Hindu extremists, while also soothing the fears of the Muslim minority. Perhaps the entire hearing was never about getting to the most reliable version of history at all—it was always about achieving this precarious sense of balance. As we analyse the judgement, perhaps it is also time to consider whether well-intentioned historians do not often attempt to achieve a similar sense of balance, especially when writing on highly sensitive and politicised subjects.

Saurabh Mishra is a lecturer in the Department of History, Sheffield. He is the author of the monograph Beastly Encounters of the Raj: Livelihoods, Livestock and Veterinary Health in Colonial India, 1790-1920(Manchester University Press, 2015).

Cover Image: William Hodges, ‘A View of Part of the City of Oudh’, 1787, which features the Babri Masjid mosque on top of the hill.

[1] For the full list of documents being studied by the courts, see the following link: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/ayodhya-case-medieval-docs-arguments-supreme-court-recap-1600865-2019-09-19

[2] See the article at the following link: https://www.firstpost.com/india/ayodhya-dispute-hearing-ram-lallas-lawyer-cites-european-historians-to-prove-ram-temples-existence-sc-asks-for-clarification-on-sunni-muslims-stance-7162851.html

[3] See article titled ‘Historians’ report on Babri Mosque mere “Opinion”: SC’ https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/historians-report-on-babri-mosque-mere-opinion-sc/articleshow/71176583.cms

[4] https://frontline.thehindu.com/static/html/fl2625/stories/20091218262501700.htm

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