Commons debate on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 provided clear feedback on the successes and failures of drug policy reform advocacy

by Isabella Ross

Last week, MPs in Westminster and Holyrood debated issues related to drugs for the first time since 2017. The debate, led by leading drug reform advocates Jeff Smith, Labour MP for Manchester, Withington and Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP for Reigate, fluctuated between overwhelming appetite for reform and the very same rhetoric that has kept the outdated Act enshrined in law for over fifty years.

With seventeen members speaking in favour of reform and three against, the debate was a promising display of political progress clearly influenced by the tireless advocacy of individuals and groups in the drug policy reform space (with many including the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, Transform, Anyone’s Child, Neil Woods and Peter Krykant mentioned by name).

Pro-reform Parliamentarians spoke powerfully about the failures of the MoDA on all levels of preventing drug-related harm, offering impassioned pleas for reform based on a wide range of issues.

Janet Daby, MP for Lewisham East, offered powerful insight into the disproportionate “over-policing and under-protection of young Black men” sanctioned under MoDA.

Alison Thewliss, SNP member for Glasgow Central, highlighted the work of Peter Krykant and his overdose prevention project, thanking him and imploring Ministers to “listen to the campaigners with lived experience” like Krykant.

Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, opened his speech by admitting to changing tack on drug policy, from criminalisation to health. Eloquently outlining the need to support the most vulnerable, he called for “significant and sustained investment” “to rebuild and reinvigorate our services.”

Members including Jeff Smith, Rachael Maskell, Kenny MacAskill, and Ronnie Cowan all highlighted the effectiveness of the Portugese model as an aspirational example of reform with myriad tangible benefits on people who use drugs, and wider Portugese society.

The importance of harm reduction was also reinforced by almost all speakers, with the instrumental benefits of overdose prevention centres, naloxone, needle distribution, and heroin-assisted treatment discussed at length.

While these speeches, both heartfelt and evidence-based, deserve attention for their virtually unprecedented public display of criticism toward the MoDA and current UK drug policy. It is in the speeches of the three MPs who were reluctant towards, and even wholly opposed to reform, that the drug policy reform space can learn the most impactful lessons.

Nick Fletcher, Conservative MP for Don Valley, raised several questions based on stigmatising and provocative claims that first emerged in discourse in the UK alongside the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. He questioned the prospects of those involved in the drug trade in the wake of decriminalisation or legal regulation, suggesting that “they would simply move into selling harder drugs, which it would be grossly irresponsible ever even to consider regulating”. He also admitted that despite the “conflicting evidence” on whether cannabis legalisation leads to an “upsurge in usage”, he worries about the possible burden on the NHS’ mental health services due to “cannabis use increasingly being linked to psychiatric disorders” including depression and anxiety, a hugely stigmatising claim that neglects the fact that cannabis-based medicines are currently prescribed as a treatment for many mental health issues.

Whilst none of the claims were backed up with evidence, there was a degree of consideration and balance. However, Dr Kieran Mullan, Conservative member for Crewe and Nantwich, took a stronger stance against reform, firmly supporting the “quiet benefits” of abstinence-based drug policy; He implored members to acknowledge the powerful “social effect” of stigma in reducing drug use, argued that creating legal pathways for drug use will result in “more racketeering, more counterfeit money, and more people trafficking”, and perhaps most problematically discussed his conclusions from discussions with a former problematic drug user: that “hit[ting] rock bottom, having no help from anyone and having exhausted” every treatment option is often a more successful route to recovery than well-funded and accessible treatment services. 

To the frustrations of drug reformers in the UK, Kit Malthouse, the relevant minister, shared many of Fletcher and Mullan’s concerns. He most prominently reflected on the United States’ opioid crisis to dismiss any claims of legal regulation’s potential as a ‘silver bullet’, and outlined his support for an equilibrium in the “balance between enforcement, and treatment and recovery” that continues to engage law enforcement in efforts to reduce drug-related harms. He also highlighted the progress of these enforcement efforts on the issue of county lines. Malthouse lauded the 5,100 arrests made in an attempt to end the pervasive harms of county lines, speaking in stark contrast with the efforts of multiple members to highlight the inability of the government to “arrest [their] way out of this problem”, and repeated references to the works of and conversations with Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer who now speaks publicly on the futility of police-based interventions in interrupting the illicit drug market.

Ultimately, many of the anti-reform arguments made by the members centred around three key points: the concern that decriminalisation or legalisation will not reduce, but merely redirect criminal activity, claims of increased rates of drug use in the reduction of stigma and ease of access, and references to flawed legally regulated markets in the US and Canada.

These arguments provide strong direction for the political advocacy work of drug policy reform campaigners. Our current political supporters are educated, passionate, and ready to push for reform: They made compelling arguments that address the intersectional and multi-faceted need for radically different drug policies, and directly called upon the government for immediate change. 

For those Parliamentarians still apprehensive to reform, our battlegrounds have been identified. Reading between the lines of key statements from Malthouse and Conor McGinn, Malthouse’s shadow, there is movement on all sides of the house that we must protect the most vulnerable and tackle the unprecedented levels of drug deaths in the United Kingdom. With Dame Black part 2 due in July, the time is ripe to instil policies that reduce harm and save lives.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Issy Ross is Content Officer at Volteface.

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