50 years of the Misuse of Drugs Act and the ACMD

A post marking 50 years of the legislation which introduced a drug classification system...
Created On: 27 May 2021   (Last updated: 27 May 2021)

A post marking 50 years of the legislation which introduced a drug classification system and established the UK’s official drugs law and policy advisory body. Despite several amendments over the past five decades, the framework of the Act remains central to drug law today.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was passed into law 50 years ago today, on the 27 May 1971. The Act consolidated several previous laws into one act. Perhaps the most substantial change bought about by the Misuse of Drugs Act was to establish definitions and lists of illegal drugs, make their possession and distribution illegal, and determine penalties for people charged with possession or supply. This system defined illegal drugs as either Class A, B or C, with Class C drugs subject to the lowest sentences and Class A drugs the highest.

One of the most enduring elements of the Act was that it established the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The ACMD is an advisory non-departmental public body sponsored by the Home Office, which makes recommendations to the UK Government on a range of issues from the control of drugs to the national response to drug-related harms. Over the years, Drug and Alcohol Findings summarised and analysed several pivotal publications from the council, including on:

  • Widening the availability of the ‘overdose antidote’ naloxone: In 2012, when the “Consideration of naloxone” was published by the ACMD, there were more than a thousand fatal opioid overdoses in England and Wales each year (now, the figure stands at over two thousand per year). The council concluded that opportunities to assist in an overdose situation with naloxone were limited by its prescription-only status, and recommended that the government eased restrictions on who can be supplied with naloxone. The following year, the world’s first licensed naloxone product for use by non-medical personnel (Prenoxad) became available in the UK after being approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
  • The case for and against imposing a blanket time limit on opioid substitution therapy: In 2014, evidence appraised by the ACMD strongly suggested that putting a time limit on treatment may have significant unintended consequences, including increasing the rate of opioid overdose deaths, drug-related crime, and the spread of blood-borne viruses. Furthermore, contrary to concerns in the government that patients were ‘getting parked’ in maintenance programmes, the authors noted that more individuals appeared to be in opioid substitution therapy for too short a time to benefit than were in it for more than five years.
  • The risks of further disinvestment in treatment services: Based on research, financial data and stakeholder surveys and testimonies, in 2017 the UK government’s official drug policy advisers warned that without significant efforts to protect investment and quality, loss of funding in England would “result in the dismantling of a drug misuse treatment system that has brought huge improvement to the lives of people with drug and alcohol problems”.

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