The current drug laws in the UK are governed by The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), where drugs are divided into Class A, B, and C, but there are other statutes regarding the use of drugs in the UK. In this post, we outline the history of UK drug laws and what each legislation covers.
The main drug laws in the UK:
The main drug law in the UK governing the possession, supply, and use of drugs is the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. This act was passed with the intent to prevent the non-medical use of specific drugs, so it is inclusive of both medicinal drugs and drugs which do not have a medical use. The law is an expansive act that regulates numerous offenses, including the unlawful supply, intent to supply, importation and exportation, and unlawful production of certain drugs.
The fundamental distinction between the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Medicines Act is that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 also prohibits unlawful possession. As far as enforcement is concerned, police are granted special stop and search powers against those that they have reasonable suspicion are possessing a controlled drug.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the various offenses include the possession of a controlled drug, possession with intent to supply another person with a controlled drug, the actual supply of a controlled drug to another person, the import and export of controlled drugs, and allowing your premises to be used for the consumption of certain controlled drugs.
The Misuse of Drugs Act classifies drugs into three categories:
– Class A:
Cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, methadone, methamphetamine, magic mushrooms, and any Class B drug which is injected, are all categorised as Class A drugs.
Class A substances are treated as the most dangerous of those regulated by the law. For possession of a Class A drug, you can receive a sentence of up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or potentially both. For the supply and production of a Class A Drug, however, you can be sentenced to life in prison, an unlimited fine, or potentially both.
– Class B:
Amphetamine (excluding methamphetamine), barbiturates, codeine, ketamine, and synthetic cannabinoids are all classified as Class B drugs. Since 2010, all cathinone derivatives have also been added to this category.
If you are caught in possession of a class B drug, you can receive a sentence of up to 5 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or potentially both. However, if you are in supply and production of a class B drug, you can receive a sentence of up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both of these things.
– Class C:
Anabolic steroids, minor tranquilizers, GBL, GHB, Khat, and BZP are all classified as Class C drugs.
If you are caught in possession of a Class C drug, you can receive a sentence of up to 2 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or potentially both. However, the possession of anabolic steroids for personal use is exempt. For the supply and production of a Class C drug, you can receive a sentence of up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or potentially both of these things.
Minor drug offenses are typically handled by a Magistrates court where sentences and fines are considerably more lenient. However, larger drug offenses are addressed far more harshly.
There are also some notable exceptions contained within The Misuse of Drugs Act, all of which make the legislation somewhat complicated. In particular, certain drugs are covered by the legislation whilst others are outside the scope of it, and other drugs are occasionally treated in an exceptional way under the Act.
Examples of these exceptions include:
|Alcohol||It is an offence to give children under the age of 5 years old alcohol unless in the event of an energy or under medical supervision. It is also illegal for a vendor to knowingly sell alcohol to an individual that is under the age of 18 and it is illegal for an 18 year old to purchase alcohol under the age of 18.||It is not illegal for someone over 18 to buy a child over the age of 16 a beer, wine or cider if they are eating a table meal together in a licensed premises. Although, they cannot legally be bought a spirit in this situation. It is not illegal for a child aged between 5 and 16 to drink alcohol on private premises.|
|GBL (gamma-Butyrolactone)||This is a class C drug and it is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act and someone is committing an illegal act if they supply an individual with the drug with the knowledge that it will be consumed.||GBL has legitimate industrial uses and is therefore permitted and available amongst individuals with the necessary business registration.|
|Ketamine||Ketamine is classified as a class B drug and is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.||Ketamine is commonly used as an animal tranquilliser and for surgery on animals, which means it is permitted in this realm.|
|Khat||Khat is classified as a Class C drug and is therefore controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.||The Khat plant, which is the main form in which khat is sold, is not covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act’s scope and therefore possession and supply is not an offence in this situation|
|Nitrites (or “Poppers”)||Poppers are only allowed to be sold in licensed outlets and chemists in accordance with the Medicines Act 1968.||Poppers are not included in the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act and escaped a ban in 2016 in the Psychoactive Substances ban.|
|Solvents||In England and Wales it is illegal for a vendor to sell solvents to someone that is under 18 if they know that they are to be used for intoxication purposes. The government extended this legislation to make it illegal for vendors to sell lighter fuel to under 18 also, irrespective of the purposes for which it is being bought. This was an amendment to the Consumer Protection Act.||On the whole, solvents are not illegal to possess, use or buy at any age.|
|Anabolic Steroids||Anabolic Steroids are classified as a Class C Drug and are therefore regulated under the Misuse of Drugs Act.||It is not an offence for individuals to possess anabolic steroids for personal use.|
|Tobacco||Smoking in certain public places has been banned within the UK. It is also an offence for a vendor to sell tobacco products to someone that is under the age of 18.||It is not an offence for individuals at any age to use cigarettes or other tobacco based products.|
Other relevant UK drug laws
After entering in 2006, the Drugs Act drew upon a few important matters and clauses:
- It reversed the burden of proof in cases whereby suspects were possessing drugs in a quantity that is more than necessary for personal use. Essentially, the Act decided that it would be down to the defendant to prove that there was no intention to supply the drugs.
- It introduced compulsory drug tests for individuals arrested where police have reasonable grounds to suspect that Class A drugs were involved in an offense that is committed.
- The Drugs Act created a stronger link between Anti-Social behaviour and drug legislation and now, anybody given an ASBO is required to undergo testing and drug treatment.
The Medicines Act functions to regulate the licensing, supply, and manufacture of medication. Broadly, it categorises medical drugs into three categories. These are:
- Prescription Only: These are the most restricted medicines and they can only be accessed and supplied by a pharmacist if they are supplied by a doctor.
- Pharmacy: Pharmacy medicines are available for sale without a prescription, however, they can only be sold by a qualified pharmacist.
- General Sales List: General Sales List Medicines are available for sale in any store, not only a pharmacy. However, importantly advertising, labelling, and production regulations are still applicable.
Whilst it is rare that the enforcement of The Medicines Act actually affects the general population, it does still bear some relevance.
Under this legislation, psychoactive substances are illegal to supply and produce. You can get a fine and or a prison sentence if you are caught carrying around a psychoactive substance with intent to supply it, have created a psychoactive substance, or sell, deal, or share a psychoactive substance. You can receive a sentence of up to 7 years in prison and an unlimited fine for these offenses.
Psychoactive substances can be construed as substances that cause hallucinations, drowsiness, and have a direct effect on the mind. Food, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and medicine are all excluded from this definition and act.
Accompanying the Misuse of Drugs Act, the Customs and Excise Act penalises any unauthorised import or export of the controlled drugs listed. As a general rule, the maximum penalties are similar to that of other trafficking offenses, however, fines in a Magistrates court can reach up to three times the value of seized drugs.
Under the Road Traffic Act, it is an offense to drive or be in charge when under the influence of drink and drugs over a certain, outlined limit. It is an offense to be in charge of a motor vehicle while ‘unfit to drive through drink or drugs’.
For the purpose of this law, an individual is unfit to drive if his ability to drive is temporarily impaired. The limit is the blood-alcohol concentration above the prescribed limit and the drugs can include illegal drugs, prescribed medicines, or solvents.
Drug trafficking is defined as transporting, storing, importing or exporting, manufacturing, or supplying any of the various drugs covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. For trafficking drugs, the penalties are set out as per the classification system. It is illegal to sell articles for the preparation or administration of the listed controlled drugs.
The legislation also allows for assets and income of an individual that is caught and found guilty of drug trafficking to be seized, even if they cannot be proved to have arisen from the proceeds of drug trafficking.