This is prompted by an earlier blog post on TuS entitled ‘The Daily Record blaming Nicola and failing to inform on drug deaths’. That article contains the evidence which should end the recycling of context-free ‘SNPbad’ charges over drugs but just like A&E waiting times, PISA education scores, pigeon droppings and many more topics besides, of course it won’t! Regrettably neither will this contribution but let’s come at the subject on a different track anyway – for information and interest!
One is mindful when making comparisons between UK nations of risking the charge of whataboutism. However, in the context of policy and practice on the misuse of drugs, examining the situation in England is wholly justified. Indeed it is both a justifiable and relevant comparator given that ALL aspects of drugs policy and practice in England are within the total control of England’s own government in Westminster.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the main piece of legislation that regulates the production, supply and possession of “controlled drugs” (i.e. illegal drugs) in all parts of the UK.
Despite attempts in recent years by the Scottish Government to have misuse of drugs regulation devolved, the Westminster government has refused and shows no sign of altering its position. And despite multiple attempts by various bodies across the UK to have the Westminster government instigate reform of the law on drug misuse, the Tory government has resisted. The HoCL briefing has this:
The UK government has stated: “it has no plans to review the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971″.
So is all working well with drugs policy and practice in England? Is it only in Scotland that the Westminster-determined (and constraining) approach to drug misuse is flawed or failing?
Insights from a credible source
The House of Commons Library (HoCL) recently (16 June) published a briefing on the MDA and its relationship with addressing the misuse of drugs. Here are notable findings:
- from a UK government commissioned review by Dame Carol Black, in its part 1 report published February 2020: “.. drug deaths have reached an all-time high and the market has become much more violent – the total costs of drugs to society are estimated to be over £19 billion, which is more than twice the value of the market itself’
- most illegal drugs consumed in the UK are produced abroad ( – we know that border control is a reserved power)
- the heroin and crack cocaine retail market has been overtaken by the county lines model, which is driving increased violence in the drugs market and the exploitation of young people and vulnerable drug users (- we know that the origin and locus of the ‘county lines model’ is England)
- the 2019/20 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 9.4% of 16- 59 year olds had taken illegal drugs over the past year, equating to around 3.2 million people. The 2019/20 estimate of 9.4% was significantly higher than that observed a decade earlier in 2009/10 (8.4%)
- for drug misuse deaths in England and Wales, the 2018 number of 2,917 was the highest figure since records began in 1993
- male drug misuse mortality rate rose to its highest recorded level in 2018, at 74.7 deaths per million population The male rate decreased in 2019 to 73.3 deaths per million, but the reduction was not a statistically significant change
- the female rate of drug misuse has steadily been increasing for several years reached its highest recoded level in 2019 of 27.7 deaths per million.
But the UK government “has no plans to review the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971″.
Further findings of the Dame Carol Black review published in February 2020 revealed:
- ‘expenditure on drug treatment has fallen since 2013/14 along with similar falls in the numbers in drug treatment during this time, against a backdrop of increases in the prevalence of problematic drug use’, and
- the number of residential rehabilitation services have reduced significantly, removing a core treatment component for those that need it to support their recovery.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is a non-departmental public body which provides independent advice and recommendations regarding drug misuse to the UK government. Its 2016 report ‘Reducing Opioid-Related Deaths in the UK’ compared drug misuse and opioid-related deaths across the UK and noted:
- between 2012 and 2015 opioid related deaths increased by in England by 58%, in Wales by 23%, in Scotland by 21% and in Northern Ireland by 47%.
The same ACMD report confirms an observation made in an earlier TuS blog post: ‘an ageing cohort of heroin users, who began using drugs in the 1980s or 1990s, with complex health and social care needs are likely to have contributed to the recent increase in deaths.’
The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee undertook an inquiry on UK drugs policy, and published its report in October 2019. This made a number of recommendations including calling for: ‘a radical change in approach to UK drugs policy, moving from the current criminal justice approach to a health approach, with responsibility for drugs policy moving from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.’
The Government published its response to the report in January 2021. It said that whilst it supported an evidence based approach to drugs policy and increasing investment in treatment, it also said that it:
‘has no intention of decriminalising drugs’.
Trends which demonstrate need for reform
The following three graphs from the HoCL briefing alone provide important context and support for those pressing for reform of the UK’s illicit drug laws. Together with the facts given above, they make clear that the Westminster government has no cause for ‘satisfaction’ in this area of public policy. Moreover, opposition politicians in Holyrood (and especially but only the Tories) and their allied media would be well advised to bear these findings in mind before politicising and undermining efforts to achieve effective reforms in Scotland in order to reduce human tragedy.
The wide variation in numbers of deaths due to drug misuse in England’s regions is especially notable. Alone it strongly indicates that current Westminster policy and practice is not working for all places and all circumstances. Something we already know in Scotland.
Pressure for reform
The HoCL report notes that a number of drugs policy and treatment charities are campaigning for a change in UK law: “More than 60 MPs and Peers, alongside ex-police officers, scientists and bereaved families have signed a statement organised by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation to the Government calling for an urgent review of the MDA. It states that the legislation is not fit for purpose, and that there is a need for “reform and new legislation to ensure that future drug policy protects human rights, promotes public health and ensures social justice.”
The Government has said that it has no current plans to review the MDA.
Most TuS readers will know that the Scottish Government has long expressed concerns about the restrictions that apply on the Scottish response to drugs misuse through the MDA. The Scottish Drugs Minister, Angela Constance has said that the Scottish Government supports a public health approach to drug harms but the system is “constrained by the current UK law.”
The HoCL explains that one example where the MDA has restricted policy in Scotland is in the introduction of drug consumption rooms. The Scottish Government support the use of these facilities, but these are not permitted under the MDA. The Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce is undertaking a review to consider the impacts on policy making of the MDA and solutions to this.
The UK Government has said it has no intentions of devolving the MDA to Scotland.
House of Commons Library (2021) General debate – Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 Briefing CDP 2021/0090, 16 June 2021.