The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its subordinate legislation represent a complicated and technical body of law, regulating a politically charged and fast-moving area of the criminal law.
In the nineteenth century Britain repeatedly went to war with China for not taking its fair share of British produced opium, and cannabis was legal in Britain until 1928. There then was a period of escalating criminalisation, leading to the ‘War on Drugs’ which by common accord was lost some years ago. Illegal drugs are now thought to be the world’s third largest industry; the consequent world money laundering business is said to amount to $300 billion annually; police and government have profited from the legal confiscation of the proceeds of crime, and seem reluctant to get in step with the public mood. The explosion of knife crime in London, is largely young men in the illegal drugs business stabbing each other in turf wars and incremental decriminalisation is widely under debate.
Against this background there is an increasing realisation that drugs are ultimately a health and education problem, and empowering criminals to make vast sums of money out of running the drugs business is wrong. While it is important to try to protect the vulnerable from self harm, there are better ways of doing this than we utilise at present. The sometimes lurid stories about ‘reefer madness’ and so on rarely survive an evidence based examination; whilst it is undoubtedly healthier to not put chemicals in your body, it is better to have educational and medical solutions a problem that the war on drugs has abjectly failed to solve.
In 2001, the drugs laws in Portugal were dramatically changed in response to public opinion about their drugs problem. Transform, a drug reform campaigning organisation reports–
“Portugal decriminalised the possession of all drugs for personal use in 2001, and there now exists a significant body of evidence on what happened following the move. Both opponents and advocates of drug policy reform are sometimes guilty of misrepresenting this evidence, with the former ignoring or incorrectly disputing the benefits of reform, and the latter tending to overstate them. The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise. However, such improvements are not solely the result of the decriminalisation policy; Portugal’s shift towards a more health-centred approach to drugs, as well as wider health and social policy changes, are equally, if not more, responsible for the positive changes observed.”
On the back of the changes in Portugal, and a body of evidence suggesting that cannabis has therapeutic value, a number of countries and states such as Canada and California have decriminalised growing cannabis, and there is a growing momentum to make this activity lawful and put the criminals out of business. Some resourceful entrepreneurs have looked to grow cannabis in countries where that is legal, but in England have come up against Section 20 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which criminalises assisting in or inducing the commission outside United Kingdom of an offence punishable under a corresponding law in England.
“A person commits an offence if in the United Kingdom he assists in or induces the commission in any place outside the United Kingdom of an offence punishable under the provisions of a corresponding law in force in that place.”
We give advice in this technically difficult legal sector.
James Saunders is our Head of Department in this field and particularly knowledgeable about the issues as he has for some 30 years been a director of the Westminster Drug Project (WDP), one of England’s leading substance abuse charities. WDP is drug and alcohol charity committed to helping those affected by substance misuse and provides support to individuals, their families and the wider communities from centres across London, the North West, South East and East of England. WDP has a leading detox and rehabilitation residential clinic where many lives have been saved.