Release is the national centre of expertise on drug laws in the UK, and campaigns for drug policies that are founded on principles of public health rather than criminal justice. The SSA’s Natalie Davies asked Release for their understanding of current UK drug laws, how the Misuse of Drugs Act accommodates the provision of sterile needles and syringes, and whether there is a legal path to rolling out drug consumption rooms. The following interview was with Supervising Solicitor, Niresha Umaichelvam, and Legal Adviser, Aminah Chowdhury.

How do the UK’s drug laws compare with other countries?

The UK’s approach to drugs law has remained unchanged since the creation of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. The UK’s approach to drugs is focused on drug prohibition – resulting in the harassment of vast numbers of the population (whether they use drugs or not), over-policing of minority communities, and the stigmatisation of drug use, which ultimately prevents people from seeking help if needed.

The current legal framework regarding drug law in the UK has left it behind in comparison to its European counterparts such as Portugal, which pursued a system of drug decriminalisation over 20 years ago, with visibly better drug-related outcomes. In terms of drug-related deaths, the UK has consistently been above the EU average (23.7 per million) with around 84.4 per million. Meanwhile, Portugal has a rate of six deaths per million. The Portuguese model has also helped reduce the prevalence of drug use across Portuguese society, which remains one of the lowest rates in Europe among those aged 15–34.

The minor legal progress that the UK has made has been around the use of out-of-court disposals and diversion schemes for low-level offences. The aim with these is to punish low-level offenders without the need to go to court or face imprisonment. However, such measures still uphold the idea that someone must be ‘punished’ for possessing drugs, and do nothing to address the over-policing of communities for drug offences.

The UK must still advance a lot if it is to develop a system that is supportive of people who use drugs and the issues they face. While the UK maintains a policy of criminalisation, we cannot expect to see different outcomes in terms of treatment uptake and quality of life improvements for those who use drugs.

Do some groups experience worse outcomes under the law?

Historically, drug policy has been a breeding ground for systemic racism. Release believes that the fact that police are more likely to stop-and-search a person of colour than a white person is indicative of the racist nature of policing priorities, particularly of the enforcement of drug laws. Research we conducted highlighted how, despite drug use being ubiquitous across all social groups, the policing of drugs is concentrated in areas of greater deprivation. Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, despite using drugs at lower rates than the white population. Most of these searches are for drug possession, rather than for supply offences, and approximately 70% of searches result in nothing being found.

Furthermore, our research confirmed that Black people are three times more likely to experience police use of force compared to the white population. In more affluent areas, we uncovered higher rates of racial disparities in the use of police stop-and-search for drugs. These findings would suggest that police’s use of suspected drug possession as grounds for stop-and-search enables widespread geographical and individual profiling of citizens.

The provision of sterile needles and syringes is a cornerstone of harm reduction and infection control in the UK. Did laws have to be changed to allow the introduction of this intervention? 

The rate of overdose deaths has increased exponentially in the UK. We are now one of the deadliest countries for people using drugs in Europe. People who inject drugs suffer from significantly worse experiences in accessing health services in comparison with the general population. With blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis C and HIV being a key public health concern, it is vital that the UK focus on the prevention, detection, and treatment of infections related to injecting drugs.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is a criminal offence to supply, or offer to supply an object for providing or preparing a controlled drug. The maximum sentence is six months imprisonment and/or a fine. It states that:

“A person who supplies or offers to supply any article which may be used or adapted to be used (whether by itself or in combination with another article or other articles) in the administration by any person of a controlled drug to himself or another, believing that the article (or the article as adapted) is to be so used in circumstances where the administration is unlawful, is guilty of an offence” (section 9A (1))

There are some exceptions, for example, section 9A (2) allows for the supply of “a hypodermic syringe or any part of one” (section 9A(2)). Other exemptions include: swabs, utensils for the preparation of a controlled drug, citric acid, filters, ascorbic acid, and water ampoules of up to 2ml. These, however, must be supplied by a doctor, pharmacist, or someone working legally within drug treatment services.

There was a successful campaign by Release and other organisations for foil to be added to the current list of exemptions, deeming it an important harm reduction tool which can help move people from injecting heroin to smoking it. The Home Secretary complied, and in 2014, foil was added to the exceptions to allow for the lawful provision of foil by drug treatment providers on the basis that it gets people into treatment and away from using drugs. Regrettably, equipment like crack pipes, bongs and tourniquets still fall within this prohibition.

Ultimately, the Misuse of Drugs Act is a serious roadblock in providing effective harm reduction interventions like drug consumption rooms or crack pipes. The risk of transmitting blood-borne viruses remains a significant public health issue, as levels of reported sharing and re-use of injection equipment remain high. In 2021, a third of people who inject drugs reported inadequate provision of needles and syringes.

The solution to this is clear: a radical overhaul of the Misuse of Drugs Act is needed, so that harm reduction services can be properly provided, along with more holistic interventions like counselling and access to housing.

Are there legal barriers to rolling out other types of harm reduction, such as drug consumption rooms and drug checking services?

The approval of a drug consumption room in Glasgow, opening hopefully this year, is cause for celebration. The pilot scheme hopes to allow people who use drugs to take their own drugs under the supervision of trained health professionals, which appears like a promising shift in approaches to drug control. However, the drug consumption room is only opening because Westminster has agreed not to intervene in its opening, rather than because they approved it; this is the lowest possible level of support for the intervention. Drug consumption rooms have been formally opened in at least 14 countries and are a tried and tested intervention to reduce drug-related harms.

For facilities to be viable and effective, it is essential that drug consumption rooms meet legal requirements, and that managers, staff, and any other personnel receive adequate training and protection of the law in relation to acts they may need to conduct. As it stands, the current system governed by the Misuse of Drugs Act is inflexible. This primarily stems from the Misuse of Drugs Act preventing the possession of drugs by individuals attending the space, as they risk being criminalised for that activity. A Supervised Drug Consumption Facilities Bill was proposed in 2018, as a private members’ Bill, to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act with needed changes to protect their existence, but this failed to pass.

In relation to drug checking, it is positive to see that the Home Office recently approved a licence for The Loop to provide a drug checking service in Bristol. However, the licensing system is expensive and laborious, and can include restrictive components. We need a national framework to scale-up drug checking. This is especially important in light of the increase in synthetic opioids, and if the government is serious about preventing drug-related deaths.

About Release

Release is the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law in the UK. The organisation, founded in 1967, is an independent and registered charity. Release provides free non-judgmental, specialist advice and information to the public and professionals on issues related to drug use and to drug laws.

The organisation campaigns directly on issues that impact on its clients – it is their experiences that drive the policy work that Release does and why Release advocates for evidence-based drug policies that are founded on principles of public health rather than a criminal justice approach. Release believes in a just and fair society where drug policies should reduce the harms associated with drugs, and where those who use drugs are treated based on principles of human rights, dignity, and equality. Release is an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Interview edited by Natalie Davies

Editor’s note: This article follows the editorial policy of Release to capitalise the word ‘Black’ when referring to race, ethnicity, or culture, but not to capitalise ‘white’. This aligns with the practices of publications such as the Columbia Journalism Review and Associated Press. The Columbia Journalism Review explained their decision in the following way: “For many people, Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.” Other sources such as the Diversity Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style opt to capitalise both Black and White.

The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.


Share this story