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’. 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’. 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’.
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.
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
 John Glaister and Edgar Rentoul, ‘The Control of the Sale of Poisons and Dangerous Drugs’, British Medical Journal (1958;2), p. 1525.
 House of Lords debate (October 1969), Hansard volume 790, cols 189-90.
 Julian Buchanan and L. Young, ‘The War on Drugs—A War on Drug Users’, Drugs: Education, Prevention, Policy 7:4 (2000), pp. 409-22.
 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).