UK illegal drug classification

What is meant by ‘drugs’?

A drug is a natural or synthetic substance which affects the functioning or structure of a human body, including the mind. Medicines that are used and prescribed by the medical profession, for instance, are drugs. However, the use and supply of many drugs is illegal under UK law.

Illegal drugs are dealt with under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA 1971) which was introduced to prevent the non-medical use of certain drugs. Drugs subject to MDA 1971 are known as ‘controlled’ drugs and are split into different classifications. Many controlled drugs are also governed by the Medicines Act 1968.

What are the different drug classifications?

Under MDA 1971, controlled drugs are split into three distinct classes – Class A being considered the most dangerous. Schedule 2 of MDA 1971 lists all the illegal drugs which fall into the three categories. These include:

Class A

Crack cocaine, cocaine, diamorphine, ecstasy (MDMA), heroin, LSD, magic mushrooms, methadone, and methamphetamine (crystal meth).

Class B

Amphetamines, barbiturates, cannabis, codeine, ketamine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones (eg, mephedrone, methoxetamine).

Class C

Anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines (diazepam), gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), gamma-butyrolactone (GBL), piperazines (BZP), khat.

Temporary class drugs

The government can ban new drugs for up to a year under a temporary banning order. During that time, it decides how the drug concerned should be correctly classified. As at 27 February 2017, the following drugs are illegal under temporary bans:

Some methylphenidate substances (ethylphenidate, 3,4-dichloromethylphenidate (3,4-DCMP), methylnaphthidate (HDMP-28), isopropylphenidate (IPP or IPPD), 4-methylmethylphenidate, ethylnaphthidate, propylphenidate) and their simple derivatives.

What are the offences under MDA 1971?

Offences under MDA 1971 include:

  • Possession of a controlled substance.
  • Possession with intent to supply.
  • Production, cultivation or manufacture of controlled substances.
  • Supplying another person with a controlled substance.
  • Offering to supply another person with a controlled substance.
  • Import or export of controlled drugs.
  • Allowing premises you occupy or manage to be used for the consumption of certain controlled substances. This includes only the smoking of cannabis or opium and does not extend to the use of other controlled substances.
  • Allowing premises you occupy or manage to be used for the supply or production of any controlled substance or substances.

What is possession?

A person may be charged with possession if they have the controlled substance in their physical possession, for instance, in their pocket or bag, or they have control over them without permission. The prosecution needs only to prove that the individual had the controlled drug in their possession and that they were aware of having it in their possession.

In the case of certain medical drugs, an individual would need a prescription to prove they had the requisite permission, otherwise they could be committing an offence.

What is supply?

Supply means providing the controlled substance to another individual. No payment is required for an offence of supply to take place: the substance may, for instance, have been given as a gift or as a ‘favour’.

What is possession with intent to supply?

This offence is committed when someone is found with a controlled substance in their possession – but it is not for their personal use and it is intended to be supplied to others. It is a serious offence, but the prosecution will need to prove the individual was in possession of a controlled substance, and that they intended to supply some or all of it to another individual.

What is production of a controlled substance?

Manufacture of a controlled substance without a license is an offence under the MDA 1971. This includes the cultivation of cannabis plants.

Will I get a prison sentence?

Offences carry potentially both prison sentences and fines on conviction, depending on the class of drug and the offence of which a defendant is convicted:

Class A

For possession of a Class A drug, the defendant may receive up to seven years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. For supply, the defendant may receive life imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

Class B

Possession of a Class B drug attracts a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine may be imposed. For supply, up to 14 years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine may be imposed.

Class C

For possession of a Class C drug, up to two years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine may be imposed (except anabolic steroids: it’s not an offence to possess them for personal use). Supplying Class C drugs carries a penalty of up to 14 years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

Temporary class drugs

There’s no penalty for possession of a temporary class drug, but police can confiscate them. For supplying a ‘temporary class drug’, up to 14 years’ in prison and/or an unlimited fine may be imposed.

Psychoactive drugs

Psychoactive drugs are things that cause hallucinations, drowsiness or changes in alertness, perception of time and space, mood or empathy with others. There’s no penalty for possessing these (unless you’re in prison), but supplying a psychoactive drug, attracts a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.