The penalties for drug offences in the UK are determined by the legal classification of the drugs in question. This has been the case since the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1971. With that act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was set up to research and decide how illegal drugs should be classified. Since then, new drugs have come onto the market. The law has been updated many times to reflect changes in drug culture and usage and how the risks of certain drugs are perceived.

In theory, illegal drugs are classified according to how dangerous they are. This takes into account the harm they may cause the user and society more generally. The UK Advisory Council has however been criticised for overlooking scientific and medical evidence when classifying drugs. The most common area of dispute and debate is on whether cannabis should be illegal, and whether its use can have medicinal benefits, or whether its harm in the wider context outweighs any benefit in making it legal. This is an ongoing and complex debate and as such, is outside the purposes of this article.

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 (this has different pharmaceutical qualities to that which is commonly found on the streets and used recreationally).

Looking at the Classes

Whether a drug is a psychedelic, a stimulant, or a depressant does not have much bearing on its class. We’ll see now the wide range of drugs that come into each class.

Class A drugs include crack cocaine, crystal meth, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, and magic mushrooms.

Class B drugs include amphetamines, barbiturates, cannabis, codeine, ketamine, Ritalin, synthetic cannabinoids, and synthetic cathinones.

Class C drugs include anabolic steroids (although it’s not an offence to possess them for personal use), diazepam, GHB, GBL, khat, piperazines (BZP).

The penalties for straightforward 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 illegal supply or production 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

Classifications are not set in stone. From 2004 to 2009, cannabis was reclassified to class C in an attempt to free up police time, before new medical evidence brought it back to class B. A recent surge in ‘legal highs’ in the UK led to the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which means you can get an unlimited fine and/or up to 7 years in prison for supplying or producing ‘psychoactive substances’ not otherwise classified. These are defined as “things that cause hallucinations, drowsiness or changes in alertness, perception of time and space, mood or empathy with others”.

Attempts to crack down on ‘legal highs’ and ‘designer drugs’ have led to a new UK drug status: temporary class drug. The Home Secretary can place a new psychoactive substance causing sufficient concern about its potential harms under temporary control. Importation, production and supply of a temporary class drug is illegal and offences committed are subject to the following maximum penalties:

  • 14 years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine on indictment, and
  • 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 enables the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs 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.