criminal law Acts

The legal act summary below is supplied by Law Teacher as a free information resource to help you with your studies.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

There are many medicinal substances which, if misused, have undesirable side-effects, including addiction and/or inducing dangerous or bizarre behaviour[1]. Furthermore, there are substances which have no therapeutic purpose and have the same deleterious effects when taken (so-called “recreational drugs”). The primary objective of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (the “Act”) is to control the use and distribution of these dangerous and harmful drugs, with the aim of preventing drug misuse. Prior to the implementation of the Act, there was a raft of legislation in place which was aimed at curbing the abuse of controlled substances, and it was decided to consolidate the law on this issue with the introduction of the Act[2]. In addition, the Act introduced certain new offences and addressed several perceived failures in relation to the identification/definition of certain drugs which were not specifically caught under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965 (e.g. amendments to the definition of cannabis)[3].

Whilst the main principles and framework introduced by the Act in 1971 remain in force today, over the last 45 years there have been substantial changes not only from a scientific perspective (e.g. in methods of production and development of controlled substances), but also in the way society has viewed these drugs and the best way to tackle the harm that comes from their misuse. In the 1980s, the emphasis in government policy was to reduce the supply of controlled drugs. This progressed to an emphasis on reducing demand in the 1990s, whilst the focus in the 2000s was on harm reduction[4]. The law, therefore, has had to keep up-to-date with these developments and maintain its relevance in a rapidly changing world. In large part, this has been achieved through the framework set up by the Act and the multitude of supplements, updates and modifications introduced thereunder by subordinate legislation over the years (including the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, the Misuse of Drugs (Safe Custody) Regulations 1973, and various modification and designation orders). This framework of subordinate legislation has helped the Act retain its flexibility by enabling the detailed law regarding controlled substances to be changed relatively quickly from time to time without having to go through the rigmarole of amending an act of Parliament each time[5].

One of the most notable changes introduced by the Act was the new system of classification of drugs (Class A, B or C) according to their relative degree of overall harm from misuse, with maximum penalties prescribed for each class[6]. The classification is based around three basic concerns: (i) whether the drug is being misused; (ii) whether it is likely to be misused and (iii) whether its effects are likely to constitute a social problem[7]. The most hazardous drugs (e.g. cocaine and heroin) are classified as Class A drugs, for which the severest penalties would be imposed.

The basic principle of the Act is that it is unlawful to possess or deal with a controlled drug in any way unless a person is licensed by the Home Office or falls within certain categories of exempt persons (e.g. medical practitioners)[8]. The Act covers a range of offences relating to the misuse of controlled drugs. These range from the basic offences of possession (section 5), supply (section 4(3)) and production (sections 4(2) and 6(2)), to certain ancillary and more esoteric offences (including where occupiers’ allow certain activities relating to controlled drugs to occur on their premises[9], the prohibition of certain activities relating to opium[10], inchoate offences of incitement (section 19) and participation (section 20) and the offence of obstruction (section 23(4))). The Act further allows the Secretary of State to require doctors or pharmacies to provide information in areas where there is a drug problem[11].

The Act maintained the system of notification of addicts under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1967 and existing regulations on the safe custody of drugs[12]. Another significant change introduced by the Act was the formation of a new statutory body, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (the “Advisory Council”), whose purpose was to advise the government on drug policy and treatment. The establishment of the Advisory Council is “central to the workings of the [Act] and its subordinate legislation”[13], and the Home Secretary is required to consult with the Advisory Council prior to making any changes to the subordinate legislation[14].

Whilst critics on both sides of the divide have been debating whether or not the Act is still fit for purpose (for example in the recent row on “legal highs”), it cannot be denied that the Act is a “complex piece of legislation”, and provides the law with sufficient flexibility to walk the tight rope between allowing the correct use of certain controlled drugs whilst simultaneously preventing their misuse[15].

Total number of words (excluding title, footnotes and bibliography): 783

REFERENCES CITED:

1. Bennett, T. and Holloway, K., ‘Understanding Drugs, Alcohol and Crime’ (2005, Open University Press)

2. Cole, M.D., ‘The Analysis of Controlled Substances’ (2003, John Wiley & Sons Ltd)

3. Dame Smith, J., ‘Regulation of Controlled Drugs in the Community’ (2004, Fourth Report of the Shipman Inquiry)

4. Jason-Lloyd, L., ‘Misuse of Drugs: A Straightforward Guide to the Law’ (2007, Waterside Press)

5. Jason-Lloyd, L., s‘Some key elements of misuse of drugs legislation’ (2007) Criminal Lawyer 172, 6-7, 7

6. Pycroft, A.,‘Key Concepts in Substance Misuse’ (2015, Sage)

LEGISLATION CITED:

1. Dangerous Drugs Act 1965

2. Dangerous Drugs Act 1967

3. Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

4. Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001

5. Misuse of Drugs (Safe Custody) Regulations 1973


[1] Leonard Jason-Lloyd, ‘Some key elements of misuse of drugs legislation’ (2007) Criminal Lawyer 172, 6-7, 7

[2] Leonard Jason-Lloyd, ‘Misuse of Drugs: A Straightforward Guide to the Law’ (2007, Waterside Press), 14

[3] Michael D. Cole, ‘The Analysis of Controlled Substances’ (2003, John Wiley & Sons Ltd), 3

[4] Trevor Bennett and Katy Holloway, ‘Understanding Drugs, Alcohol and Crime’ (2005, Open University Press), 25

[5] Leonard Jason-Lloyd, ‘Misuse of Drugs: A Straightforward Guide to the Law’ (2007, Waterside Press), 14-18

[6] Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Schedule 2

[7] Aaron Pycroft, ‘Key Concepts in Substance Misuse’ (2015, Sage), 13

[8] Dame Janet Smith, ‘Regulation of Controlled Drugs in the Community’ (2004, Fourth Report of the Shipman Inquiry), 1

[9] Misuse of Drugs Act, section 8

[10] Misuse of Drugs Act, section 9

[11] Misuse of Drugs Act, section 17

[12] Trevor Bennett and Katy Holloway, ‘Understanding Drugs, Alcohol and Crime’ (2005, Open University Press), 24

[13] Leonard Jason-Lloyd, ‘Misuse of Drugs: A Straightforward Guide to the Law’ (2007, Waterside Press), 18

[14] Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, section 31(3)

[15] Leonard Jason-Lloyd, ‘Misuse of Drugs: A Straightforward Guide to the Law’ (2007, Waterside Press), 14