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The Misuse of Drugs Act - Happy 40th Birthday

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On 2nd June 2011, the Guardian newspaper hosted an open letter to the Prime Minister. Drafted by the organisation Release, the letter marked the 40th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and tried to evoke a mood of change in drugs policy. Signatories included celebrities, peers and academics; tabloid journalism decided to focus on "naive luvvies" and there was an almost deliberate negation of those that have some degree of knowledge in drugs policy. As honourable as it is for the likes of Dame Judy Dench to lend credence, the overlooked figures of: Professor in criminal justice Alex Stevens, former Chief Constable Tom Lloyd, and LEAP member Paul Whitehouse were given no mind in favour of cynical reporting.

Perhaps the biggest casualty in the drugs debate is the impartial reporting of the actualities of the vast subject matter. There is long held fallacy - and a dangerous etymology of language - that keeps drugs policy in an almost deliberate stalemate. It may surprise many people to know - in the UK - we have no such thing as 'legal' and 'illegal' drugs. If we address the subject properly and in terms of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, then we have 'controlled' and 'non controlled' drugs. At first glance, this all may seem pedantic and semantics at their best, but in practice, using false language is where the dialogue breaks down into a quagmire of opinion based discussion. Legal drugs are conceived as good, and illegal drugs are perceived as bad, this notion is simply adolescent. True drugs policy is a discussion for optimal control.

From its conception, the MoDA1971 is mandated to be an ever evolving piece of legislation with a view to seek alternatives. In fact, the very first thing you read in the MoDA is:

(under Section 1) -
"(2) (a)
for restricting the availability of such drugs or supervising the arrangements for their supply."

In essence, the policy makers of the day sought alternatives if prohibition was considered a failure in controlling drugs. Many argue that we are now at the crossroads of hindsight.

The MoDA1971 is also required to be evidence based. 40 years on from its insertion, the act has become an arbitrary tool for all out prohibition with no rational discussion permitted to alternatives. It could be argued that current policy is based on media pandering and opinion based moralist agenda. There is a wilful misconception that those wishing for reform are advocating a free market with a selfish hue for hedonism.

Addressing the MoDA at its core, we soon see that it is the act of possession, cultivation and production that is illegal and not the drugs themselves; the MoDA seeks to govern and regulate human behaviour. By discussing drugs as a generic evil concept, society allows itself an abolition of certain truths. Many of us are familiar with the term "War on Drugs" - and it is indeed conceivable that we can fight drugs, but make no mistake, from its inception, the War on Drugs (conceived by Richard Nixon after the infamous Shafer Report) is purely a concept war that is designed to sound good for the sake of political rhetoric. If we break free from sound bites, we are actually trying to wage a war on people; and 'some' people at that. The war on drugs is a war on choice. It is utterly taboo to speak of non-problematic drug users, but in truth, there are an array of people from the whole social strata that have taken a conscious decision to use alternatives to state endorsed highs such as alcohol and tobacco, which of course, have a greater degree of harm than many other drugs. When a country allows specific drugs for no other reason than "cultural and historical reasons" - then we can perhaps see why the hypocrisy of current law lends itself to a certain disdain for policy. The current drugs debate exists to enforce messages to children, but blatant hypocrisy cannot pertain to what the government would like the youth to believe. The young are not stupid, the internet allows free thought and research to actual scientific evidence.

Of course, children do need protecting, but to achieve this, it may be preferable to use age check systems and truth over knee-jerk hyperbole that act as scare tactics. By proxy, the state is saying that adult society does have a choice; alcohol or abstinence, and when these ethics directly conflict with the basic harm scale of drugs, it is conceivable as to why we have a drugs problem and a distinct lack of control under prohibition; not to mention, all out confusion.

Judicial measures are supposed to be based on the severity of potential harms of substances. The MoDA - despite its mandate - now has little scientific basis. An array of scientists that have chaired and worked within the ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) have been tethered to justify political reasoning, and have consequently resigned owing to the farcical application of current policy and political pseudoscience.

40 years old, and some argue the Misuse of Drugs Act is ready for retirement. Others reason that it is a good act but just needs the correct application. Whatever the consensus, the hangover will rage for a little while longer.