The UK government’s official drug advisers privately advocated for a formal repeal of the criminalisation of personal-use drug possession in 2016, a leaked document has revealed.
The Guardian has seen a copy of the 27-page pro-decriminalisation report, which the Home Office ignored at the time but then fought a three-year battle to keep confidential after a freedom of information request.
The report sent to the then home secretary by the former chair of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs highlighted a number of serious concerns around criminalising drug use. It is the only ACMD report not to have been published.
It said there was “little consistent international evidence that the criminalisation for possession of drugs for personal use is effective in reducing drug use”, that the UK was not required to criminalise drug use under its treaty obligations, and that criminalisation harmed people’s educational and employment prospects.
The ACMD recommended that “the Home Office reviews the personal possession offence (MDA). The review could result in the offence of possession for personal use being repealed.”
The revelation comes amid growing criticism of the government’s law and order approach to drug policy, which the Scottish government said recently caused greater harm to people who used drugs. This month, the UK government unveiled plans to jail people for up to two years for possessing laughing gas unless it was being used legitimately in catering or medicine.
“The suppression of these recommendations reveals what most experts have long concluded: the Home Office has zero interest in drug policies that work,” said Prof David Nutt, who was sacked from his role as the government’s chief drug adviser in 2009 after arguing that alcohol is more dangerous than certain illegal drugs.
“Their behaviour demonstrates a desire to deny any expert evidence that would reveal their persisting criminalisation approach to be illogical, inhuman and ineffective,” he added.
The report sought to harmonise the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act with 2016’s Psychoactive Substances Act, which generally does not criminalise possession. Nevertheless, it detailed wider concerns over UK drug policy among experts. It cites the reported success of Portugal in decriminalising drugs and notes that drug use has remained stable in countries after they have criminalised possession.
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “The committee clearly felt pressured into calling for a review in secret. If the recommendation had been published at the time, it would have informed lawmaking and public debate – accelerating much-needed reforms and reducing the catastrophic impacts of the UK’s failed drug laws.”
Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which campaigns for reform, said: “It would be commendable if the UK government were now to accept and act on this advice.”
MPs on the home affairs select committee this year questioned the minister for policing, Chris Philp, over the report but he refused to be drawn on its contents. “Somebody FoIed it,” he said. “The advice [from the ACMD] was provided privately. It’s highly unlikely we’d want to disclose.”
Nevertheless, a first-tier tribunal in January dismissed the Home Office’s confidentiality argument, but accepted that drug policy reform discussions were “live at the relevant time”, thus protecting the report from disclosure.
It came after the information commissioner in September 2021 ruled similarly. “The commissioner is satisfied that the policy that the report relates to is live and that it is subject to ongoing review,” it said. This is despite the government repeatedly stating it has no plans to decriminalise drugs.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This document from seven years ago was not a formal review with recommendations for publication. There is no safe way to take illegal drugs, which devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities, and we have no plans to consider legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs.
“Our 10-year drugs strategy set out ambitious plans, backed with a record £3bn funding over three years to tackle the supply of illicit drugs through relentless policing action and building a world-class system of treatment and recovery to turn people’s lives around and prevent crime.”