KEY POINTS

• The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is 50 years old but has never been subject to a formal government evaluation or review.

• More than three million criminal records have been issued under the Misuse of Drugs Act, with people sentenced to more than 680,000 years in prison since 1986.

• Drug use has risen dramatically, while drugs have become cheaper, more potent and more available.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) underpins all UK drug policy, establishing criminal offences for a range of activities including possession, supply and production of specified ‘controlled drugs’. It brought the UK into line with the global prohibition regime established under the UN Single Convention on Drugs of 1961 (which the UK ratified). The MDA also established the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and set out powers for the police to stop and search individuals on suspicion of drug possession.

Over the last five decades, vast financial and police resources have been directed towards enforcement of the MDA, while drug consumption, health harms and deaths have increased dramatically. The UK’s illegal drug markets - and associated criminality - have expanded to meet this growing demand, now valued at £9 billion annually.1 Yet, despite the evidence that the MDA has strikingly failed in its primary aims of reducing drug availability, use, and health harms, this legislation has never been subject to formal government evaluation or review, and no meaningful evaluation framework has been established to report on, or scrutinize, outcomes.

This report presents a summary of key available data on which to assess the effectiveness, in terms of costs and impacts, of the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, covering: criminalisation and incarceration; enforcement spending; drug-related deaths; prevalence of drug use; and drug availability.

Behind these statistics lie human stories: To learn how peoples’ lives have been impacted by the UK’s drug laws, please visit anyoneschild.org.