Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (c.38) is an Act of Parliament, by which the United Kingdom aims to control the possession and supply of numerous drugs and drug-like substances, as listed under the Act, and to enable international co-operation against illegal drug trafficking. As passed in 1971 the Act updated UK legislation to bring it in to line with the requirements of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The Act is presented often as little more than a list of proscribed drugs and of penalties linked to their possession and supply. In practice however the Act establishes the Home Secretary as a key player in a drug licensing system. Therefore, for example, various opiates are available legally as prescription-only Controlled Drug medicines, and cannabis (hemp) may be grown under licence for 'industrial purposes'.

The Act creates three classes of "controlled substances", and ranges of penalties for illegal or unlicensed "possession" and "possession with intent to supply" are graded differently within each class. The lists of substances within each class can be amended "by order", so the Home Secretary can list new drugs and upgrade, downgrade or delist previously-controlled drugs with less of the bureaucracy and delay associated with passing an Act through both Houses of Parliament.

The Act does not cover all drugs or drug-like substances. Although, for example, cannabis is listed under the Act (as a class C drug), tobacco, another herb or plant source of drug material, is not listed.

International cooperation

The Act provides for cooperation with other nations in implementing drug control treaties. Specifically, the Act makes it a crime to assist in, incite, or induce, the commission of an offense, outside the UK, against another nation's "corresponding law" on drugs. A "corresponding law" is defined as another country's law "providing for the control and regulation in that country of the production, supply, use, export and import of drugs and other substances in accordance with the provisions of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs" or another drug control treaty to which the UK and the other country are parties. An example might be lending money to a U.S. drug dealer for the purpose of violating the Controlled Substances Act.

History and criticism

The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 controlled amphetamines in the UK in advance of international agreements and was later used to control LSD.

Before 1971, the UK had a relatively liberal drugs policy and it was not until U.S. influence had been brought to bear — particularly in United Nations circles — that drugs use was generally criminalised. Before the passage of the Act, it was possible for heroin addicts to be prescribed enough of the drug to manage their addiction without being forced to buy from the black market, for example.

Supporters of the newer drugs policy tend to believe that criminalising both drug use and possession (it is not illegal to be under the influence of illegally supplied drugs once ingested/injected unless operating machinery/driving) is the best way to handle the social problems caused by drugs, whereas opponents tend to suggest that criminalising users and dealers alike is counterproductive and detrimental to the health of users as it pushes the prices up creating more crime to feed the habit and does not make substances substantially harder to obtain. It also puts money into the hands of organised criminals, which would not happen without prohibition.

The Science Select Committee said in 2006 that the present system was based on historical assumptions, not scientific assessment.

Nutt, King, Saulsbury and Blakemore's research

In March 2007, The Lancet published the results of a study that, in their opinion, highlighted the inadequacy of the current drugs classification system in the UK, calling it "not fit for purpose". The research, which compared 20 substances, some classified and some not classified, concluded that alcohol was the fifth most harmful drug, behind heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco came ninth, resulting more harmful than cannabis, and even than some Class-A drugs like LSD and ecstasy.

The researchers said that "the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the Misuse of Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary".

This study holds similar views found in a 2006 report written by The British House of Commons entitled Drug Classification: Making A Hash Of It

Structure of The Act

The Act sets out three separate classes of controlled drug in Schedule 2, parts I-III respectively. Substances may be removed and added to different parts of the Schedule by Statutory Instrument, provided a report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has been commissioned and has reached a conclusion, although the Secretary of State is not bound by its finding.


The penalties for drug offences depend on the class of drug involved. It should be noted that these penalties are enforced against those who do not have a valid prescription or license to possess the drug in question. Thus it is not illegal for someone to possess oxycodone, a class A drug, so long as it was administered to them legally (by prescription).

Class A drugs attract the highest penalty. The maximum penalties possible are as follows :

Offence Court Class A Class B Class C
Possession Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2500 fine 3 months / £500 fine
Crown 7 years / unlimited fine 5 years / unlimited fine 2 years / unlimited fine
Supply Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2000 fine
Crown Life / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine

Class A drugs

This list is not exhaustive

Class B drugs

Note that preparing a Class B drug for injection makes it a Class A drug.

Class C drugs

It is an offence to sell or supply them to another person. The exceptions are temazepam and flunitrazepam; it is illegal to possess either of these drugs without a valid prescription, making them both Class B.

Although some Class C drugs as defined by MDA 1971 may be exempt from the possession offence without an appropriate prescription specifically benzodiazepines are controlled under The Medicines Act 1968 and Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 as Amended. The MDR 2001 places most benzodiazepines in Schedule 4 Part 1 thus Possession of is an offence without an appropriate prescription.

External links

Government sites

Other sites


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