Reports recommends decriminalising some drug offences

13 October 2013

The current law is determined by the Misuse of Drug Act 1971 a piece of legislation that the commission say could never have anticipated, and was never designed to deal with such high levels of use as are currently found in England and Wales.  Nor did it anticipate the rapid development of new drugs that we see today. 

The commission says that it estimates that 3 million people will have used a controlled drug in the past year.  Under the current legislation more then 160,000 people each year are being given a cannabis warning and in England and Wales an additional 42,000 people were sentenced for possessing a controlled drug.  In the view of the commission the enforcement of the law focuses on young and some ethnic groups in particular areas and it states that more then half of all police stop and search activity is targeted with a view to finding only small amounts of drugs.  

The report has examined the schemes in Australia, the US, Portugal, the Czech Republic and some South American countries which have meant that these countries have moved gradually towards a more decriminalised approach to possession of controlled drugs for personal use only.  The report states "opponents of depenalisation and decriminalisation raise concerns about the message that a change in the law would send the public, particularly young people.  We recognise that the law expresses the sort of society we wish to live in.  But the law relating to the possession of drugs has become discredited to such an extent that any usefulness in setting a moral position has in many situations become largely ineffectual".  Having examined the situations in other countries that have taken the first steps towards decriminalisation the reports says "prevalence and consumption have not increased in these countries to any significant extent.  Some experts indeed argue that these reforms have led to decreasing problems".  

The commission suggests a new approach the first step of which should be to dispose of existing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis and replacing them with 'civil' penalties such as a fine, a referral to a drug awareness session, or to a drug treatment programme.  It is proposed that the new move should start with cannabis because of its relatively law level of harm, it's wide usage and international developments.  "This is something which has been gathering momentum in other countries.  If evaluations indicated that there were no substantial negative consequences, similar incremental measures could be considered, with caution and careful further evaluation, for other drugs".  The report goes onto say "these changes could potentially result in less demand on police and criminal justice time and resources.  Given the experience of other countries, our assessment is that we do not believe this would materially alter prevalence levels, whilst allowing resources to be spent on more cost effective measures to reduce the harms associated with drug use.  We would expect the net effect to be positive".

The report also recommends that those who grow a 'small number' of cannabis plants should face only minor sanctions.  However, the experts clearly reject any further move to legalisation.  They say "we do not believe there is sufficient evidence to support the case for removing criminal penalties for the major production or supply offences for most drugs.  One of the lessons from tobacco and alcohol markets is that commercialisation can lead to some disastrous consequences for the wellbeing of the public".  The report goes on to caution that any move towards any commercial market whether regulated or not could lead to "some hugely negative unintended consequences, and should be treated with caution".  

The report recommends the setting up of an independent body accountable to parliament but with the power to take decisions about controlling and classifying the harms and risks involved in new drugs.  It also recommends a new independent body to research evidence and analysis the effectiveness of drugs policy.

It will be interesting to see what the view of the political parties is to these recommendations as certainly the decriminalisation of drugs whilst advocated by many drug users is certainly not a vote winner with the majority of the electorate.  Despite the fact that cannabis is seen widely as the 'least dangerous' of the widely recognised controlled drugs there are those perhaps who suffer from, or have a family member or friend who suffers from, cannabis induced psychosis who may have a different view.

The report concludes "a commitment to the use of evidence to inform which policies are adopted combined with rigorous trials of new and existing policies, and willingness to act on the results of this research, would go a long way towards ensuring that the UK has an effective and good value response to the use of mind-altering drugs".

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.