Is possession and supply of drug paraphernalia illegal?

What is drug paraphernalia?

Drug paraphernalia is commonly considered to be the equipment and other items involved in drug taking, and making or concealing drugs, such as cannabis and cocaine. These items include needles, bongs, pipes and grinders. However, not all drug paraphernalia are illegal, such as items sold from head shops.

What are head shops?

Head shops are typically high street shops selling items such as pipes and bongs. Legal highs can also typically be bought from them. It is legal for these shops to sell this kind of paraphernalia so long as relating to legal highs.

Is it legal for me to be in possession of this kind of paraphernalia?

It is not illegal in and of itself for an individual to be in possession of this kind of paraphernalia. However, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 the individual may be committing a criminal offence if the items contain traces of drugs. Even small traces of a controlled drug found drug paraphernalia could be seen as possession and, therefore, lead to prosecution.

Needles and syringes

Similarly, mere possession of a needle or syringe is not a criminal offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, if they contain traces of controlled drugs the individual could be arrested for possession.

Supply of drugs paraphernalia

When the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 first came into effect, it made it a criminal offence under section 9(a) to supply this kind of paraphernalia (subject to exceptions). The aim was to deal with drugs dealers who sold entire drug kits to individuals to enable them to take certain drugs. If the kit was found without the presence of any drugs, charges could still be brought.

However, this provision was amended by the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Regulations 2003.

What does the law now say?

Following the amendment of section 9(a), the following people can provide certain paraphernalia when acting in their proper capacity:

  • A healthcare practitioner
  • A pharmacist
  • A person employed or engaged in the lawful provision of drug treatment services

What is the purpose of this amendment?

The purpose of this provision is to enable certain people to legally provide drug paraphernalia to drugs addicts to ensure that their drug use is done in controlled and safe environments, such as through needle exchanges.

What paraphernalia can they supply?

It is legal for the following paraphernalia to be supplied:

  • A swab
  • Aluminium foil
  • Utensils for the preparation of a controlled drug
  • Citric acid
  • A filter
  • Ampoules of water for injection, only when supplied or offered for supply in accordance with the Medicines Act 1968

What are needle exchanges?

Needle exchanges provide drugs counselling and exchange facilities where sterile equipment can be accessed. Health care professionals and others lawfully employed or engaged in providing drug treatment services can supply the above drugs paraphernalia without committing an offence under the Act.

However, to avoid committing any offence under the 1971 Act, the scheme must be operated properly. If, for instance, the person providing the equipment was party to the supply of drugs, or the drug user has committed a more serious drugs offence by giving a needle to someone else, an offence may have been committed by the provider.

What about other suppliers?

Unless the supplier comes within one of the above exceptions, it is a criminal offence for an individual to supply, or offer to supply such an item for the purposes of providing or preparing a controlled drug. On conviction, a maximum sentence of 6 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine up to £5,000 can be imposed.

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.