The penalties for drug offences in the UK are determined by the legal classification of the drugs involved in the offence. This has been the case in UK law since the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1971.
Alongside the 1971 Act, the Advisory Council on the misuse of drugs was set up to research and decide how illegal drugs should be classified. Since then, an array of new drugs have come onto the market. The law has been updated many times in the intervening years to reflect changes in drug culture and usage, plus how the risks of certain drugs are perceived.
How are drugs classified under UK law?
In theory, illegal drugs are classified according to how dangerous they are. This takes into account both the harm they may cause the user and society in general. The UK Advisory Council has been criticised for overlooking scientific and medical evidence when classifying drugs. The most common area of dispute and debate concerns whether cannabis should be illegal, whether its use can have medicinal benefits or whether its harm in the wider context outweighs any benefit in legalising the substance. This is an ongoing and complex debate.
It is possible to legally possess and supply any classified drug with authorisation from the Home Secretary. This is how scientists can legally perform research into drugs, doctors can administer opiates and Valium and manufacturers can grow cannabis as hemp, as this has different pharmaceutical qualities to that which is commonly found on the streets and used recreationally.
Classes of drugs
Whether a drug is a psychedelic, a stimulant or a depressant does not have much bearing on its class, as a wide range of drugs are classified in each of the three classes – Class A, Class B and Class C.
Class A drugs include:
- Crack cocaine
- Crystal meth
- Magic mushrooms
Class B drugs include:
- Synthetic cannabinoids
- Synthetic cathinones
Class C drugs include:
- Anabolic steroids (although it’s not an offence to possess them for personal use)
- Piperazines (BZP)
The penalties for possessing illegal drugs
The penalties for illegal possession of classified drugs are:
- Class A: Up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
- Class B: Up to 5 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
- Class C: Up to 2 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
The penalties for producing or supplying illegal drugs
The penalties for supplying or producing illegal drugs are:
- Class A: Up to life in prison, an unlimited fine or both
- Class B: Up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
- Class C: Up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
Drug classifications are not set in stone. From 2004 to 2009, cannabis was reclassified to class C in an attempt to reduce the impact on police time before new medical evidence reclassified it to class B.
Classification of legal highs under UK law
The surge in popularity and usage of legal highs in the UK in recent years led to the passing of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which specifies that anyone who is found guilty of supplying or producing psychoactive substances which are not otherwise classified can receive an unlimited fine and/or up to 7 years in prison,
Legal highs are defined as substances that ‘cause hallucinations, drowsiness or changes in alertness, perception of time and space, mood or empathy with others’.
Temporary class drugs
Attempts to crack down on legal highs and so-called designer drugs have led to a new UK drug status – temporary class drugs.
The Home Secretary can place a new psychoactive substance which is causing sufficient concern about its potential effects under temporary control. Importation, production and supply of a temporary class drug is illegal and offences committed are subject to maximum penalties of:
- 14 years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine on indictment
- 6 months’ imprisonment and a £5,000 fine on summary conviction
Simple possession of a temporary class drug is not an offence, but the police are able to take appropriate action to prevent possible harm to an individual.
A drug granted this status is banned for 12 months and gives the advisory council on the misuse of drugs the necessary time to provide full, independent and expert advice before a decision on permanent control or other necessary measures is made. UK temporary class drugs currently include various methylphenidate substances and their simple derivatives.
Prior to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the UK had a relatively liberal drugs policy. The Act – and any amendments to it – are set out by the government to reduce the number misusing illegal and other harmful drugs.