The UK's response to drugs

A view by Alan Matthews.

  • The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the publisher.


  • Nothing new.
    In every country and at every time in each society's development, there have been mood changing drugs used for recreation, in religious ceremonies and at other times. For some people these drugs have led to severe individual problems and sometimes societies have struggled terribly to cope with new drugs. Despite this, most drug use has not resulted in harm.

    There has been a permanent pressure from moral entrpreneurs in almost every society to curb or even prohibit the use of drugs. Throughout history successive governments have attempted to control the use of some drugs by rule of law. Often this has been in response to public, professional and political pressures.

    Coffee controversy.
    When coffee first came to Europe in the 17th century it caused great controversy as a new and unapproved drug. The authorities initially tried to ban it, but failed. Coffeehouses sprang up in all the major cities and whole populations became addicted to caffeine almost over night.

    Opium OK.
    Opium, on the other hand, had provided the British Empire with a major source of overseas trade for over two centuries and had become widely used in Victorian Britain before legislation was introduced in the late 19th century to control its supply.

    Britain's colonial past was founded on military supremacy and international commerce. Throughout the 18th century few trades were as lucrative as the traffick in opium. The 'opium wars' of 1838 and 1858, in which Britain forced an unwilling China to import tons of East India Company opium, demonstrated how serious Britain was about its overseas income. In this period Britain consolidated its position as the most ruthless drug pusher the world has ever seen.

    Humane approaches.
    Internally Britain took a more humane approach to its domestic drug problems than the USA. The issue was approached mainly from a medical perspective. Despite this not all British drug control policies were born out of a pure and disinterested compassion for fellow human beings. As is often the case, actions can be based more on political grounds and self-interest. Professionals tend to want take control of their domain.

    The rise of the medical profession.
    During the mid-19th century, at about the same time that Britain's monopoly of the opium trade began to wane, doctors, lawyers, and pharmacists began to form strong professioanl associations.

    Restrictions on potentially dangerous substances stemmed from concern about their ill-effects but its is also possible to see the power of these professional associations in the laws passed. The Pharmacy Act of 1868 and the Pharmacy and Poisons Act of 1908 effectively handed pharmacists a monopoly on the sale of a very popular and valuable commodity - opium and its derivatives.

    This approach was underpinned by successive investigations of Royal Commissions and expert committees. It set the scene for a more rational response to changing patterns of drug use in Britain.

    The Rolleston Committee.
    The report of one such committee epitomises this British approach. Its findings still inform practice today. Following the introduction of the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1920, The Departmental Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction (more commonly known as the Rolleston Committee after its chairman, Sir Humphrey Rolleston, president of the Royal College of Physicians) was convened in 1924. Its role was to look into the circumstances under which it was legitimate for a doctor to prescribe drugs that had been placed outside the law.

    The Committee's report, published in 1926, validated the treatment approach which had developed over time of doctors prescribing morphine to addicts. It set the foundation for what became known as 'the British system'. The prescription of heroin and morphine to those requiring gradual withdrawal and also those incapable of withdrawal was ' a legitimate medical treatment'.

    Thirty-five years later, in response to a rise in heroin use amongst a wider population of drug users, the Interdepartmental Committee on Drug Addiction (chaired by Sir Russell Brain) re-affirmed the principles of the Rolleston Committee.
  • Addiction should be regarded as an expression of mental disorder rather than a form of criminal behaviour
  • .

    Four years later in 1965, however, the Brain Committee reconvened to look at the upsurge in drug use particularly amongst young people. As well as reiterating the previous view that the addict should be viewed as a sick person and not as a criminal, the committee recommended a more stringent system of prescribing be instigated.

    In a climate of intense public anxiety at the rise of the drug-culture of the 1960s, a number of specialist drug treatment clinics were established in cities throughout the country. Despite falling out of favour during the 1970s, this treatment system was revived during the 1980s to cope with a rapid rise in heroin use across Britain. It is still in operation today.

    The Misuse of Drugs Act
    During this period, legislation to control the supply of drugs was being reviewed and updated. In 1971 the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced. This new act bore some similarities to Nixon's Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention Act. Drugs were put into various categories supposedly on the basis of their harmful or least useful attributes and penalties were laid out to cover the production, trafficking, supply, intent to supply, and possession of different drugs.

    The Misuse of Drugs Act, still the defining piece of legislation in Britain today, also brought into being the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. This is an expert body which undertakes investigations of new trends and make recommendations to government.

    More recently, new laws have come into being which reflect the changes in drug use and related criminal behaviour. For example, The Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act came into force in 1985 which made it an offence to sell or supply solvents to those under 18 years of age. This was needed because it was impossible to ban all the commercial and household products which give off volatile vapours.

    Another development came in 1986, when the Drug Trafficking Offences Act was introduced, which allows for the seizure of assets and income that could not be shown not to have come from drug-related crime. This aims to deter by stripping the drug dealers of their ill-gotten gains.

    The 1990s and Beyond: UK Policy and Strategy Development
    During the 1990s a more comprehensive approach to addressing the drugs issue in the UK has developed. In 1992 the Home Office set up the Drugs Prevention Initiative which established 17 Drug Prevention Teams around the country. Their job was to promote action at a communty level. Each Team had a small budget to support new initiatives at the grassroots, monitor the effectiveness of projects and collect information on the local situation.

    In 1995 the Government launched its' first three-year anti-drugs strategy, 'Tackling Drugs Together'. This was a framework for concerted action and led to the establishment of Drug Action Teams DATs in each local authority area in England. DATs are made up of the heads of stautory services such as the Director of Social Services, Directors for Health, Housing and Education, Police, Prisons and Probation Services. Their task is to devise a co-ordinated local strategy to tackle drugs. The Chair of each DAT reports on developments in their area directly to central government.

    Each DAT is supported by a Drug Reference Group (DRG). This has representatives from local statutory and voluntary bodies, community groups and drug service clients. The DRGs role is to feed information into the DAT helping it to formulate the local strategy and also to help ensure its implementation at ground level.

    To oversee this work the government established the UK Anti-Drug Coordinating Unit UKADCU and appointed an Anti-Drug Coordinator, also known as the 'Drug Tsar', at the beginning of 1998. In May that year, based on the experience of the three-year strategy, the UKADCU launched the government's 10-year strategy

    Tackling Drugs To Build A Better Britain

    This is a ten-year strategy with four main aims, each of which has performance targets.
    1. Young People - to help young people resist drug misuse in order to achieve their full potential in society. Key performance target: to reduce the proportion of people under 25 reporting use of illegal drugs substantially... and the drugs which cause the most harm - heroin and cocaine - by 25% by 2005 and 50% by 2008.

    2. Communities - to protect our communities from drug-related anti-social and criminal behaviour. Key performance target: to reduce levels of repeat offending amongst drug misusing offenders by 25% by 2005 and 50% by 2008.

    3. Treatment - to enable people with drug-related problems to overcome them and live healthy and crime-free lives. Key performance target: to increase participation of problem drug misusers, including prisoners, in treatment programmes which have a positive impact on health and crime by 66% by 2005 and 100% by 2008.

    4. Availability - to stifle the availability of illegal drugs on our streets. Key performance target: to reduce access to all drugs amongst young people (under 25) significantly, and to reduce access to the drugs which cause most harm, particularly heroin and cocaine, by 25% by 2005 and by 50% by 2008.

    The success of the strategy in coming years will be measured by meeting these targets annually.

    Also in 1998, under the new Crime and Disorder Act (CDA), several drug-related initiatives were launched. These included the establishment of arrest referral teams and the implementation of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders or DTTOs.

    Arrest referral teams aim to reduce offending behaviour by identifying those whose offending behaviour is drug-related and offer help to get them into treatment. Workers are based in custody suites at police stations where they have direct access to detainees to offer their service. By August 2000, most areas in England have arrest referral schemes in operation.

    DTTOs are a sentencing option for magistrates dealing with persistent offenders of drug-related crimes. A DTTO can be made, with the agreement of the offender, to last from three months to three years. The order requires the offender to undergo treatment to address their drug use and reduce offending. Random urine tests are taken two or three times a week to ensure compliance. Detection of any illicit substances in the offenders system may lead to a breach of the order with the offender being sent back to court for further sentencing.