What are drugs

Drugs include a broad range of substances ranging from prescription medicines, to illegal street drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, to readily available products such as tobacco and alcohol.

In public health and political terms, "drugs" usually refers to recreational drugs, specifically those which are illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Although technically a mind-altering substance, alcohol is not commonly included in the drugs debate, with binge drinking treated as a separate issue. Similarly, tobacco warrants its own debate.


The UK government has adopted a prohibitive stance towards recreational drugs, which is enforced through the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Prior to this act, drugs policy in the UK was relatively liberal but was reformed under pressure from the US, who pushed for the global criminalisation of drugs.

This makes it an offence to possess drugs for personal use or with intent to supply, or to allow premises you occupy or manage to be used for drug taking. It does not make it a specific offence to be under the influence of controlled substances.

The act created the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which became responsible for distinguishing three separate classes of controlled substances, referred to as Class A, Class B and Class C drugs. This classification system both attempts to rank the harm caused by various drugs and set appropriate penalties for their use.

Class A:  Ecstasy, LSD, heroin, cocaine, crack, magic mushrooms, amphetamines (if prepared for injection).
Class B:  Amphetamines, Cannabis, Methylphenidate (Ritalin), Pholcodine.
Class C:  Tranquilisers, some painkillers, Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Ketamine.

When assessing the classification of new drugs, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs hears evidence from law enforcement agencies, charities, professional bodies and scientific evidence. It classifies drugs using a risk assessment matrix, which covers nine types of term divided between physical harm, dependence and social harms.

Following an investigation by the ACMD the government brought a range of 'legal highs' under control of the Misuse of Drugs Act with effect from 23rd December 2009. These included GBL (gamma-butyrolactone), BZP (Benzylpiperazine), and 15 anabolic steroids, testosterone-like products often used by sports people, all of which are now designated Class C drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids - man-made chemicals sprayed on herbal smoking products - were also banned and are now designated Class B drugs.

In March 2010 the government announced that mephedrone and its related compounds were to be banned on the recommendation of the ACMD and designated Class B drugs. The ACMD cited evidence that mephedrone consumption could cause hallucinations, blood circulation problems, anxiety, paranoia, fits and delusions.

Mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives became illegal with effect from 16th April 2010, the new legislation being by way of a 'generic definition' to make it difficult for suppliers to produce new versions of the substances. ACMD chair, Professor Les Iversen, described this generic legislation as a "world first" for the cathinones.

As from November 2011, the Home Secretary has the power to invoke a temporary class drug order for new psychoactive substances that, following advice from the ACMD, are considered to be a cause for concern.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as amended by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, provides powers for enforcement agencies to deal with illicit manufacturers, suppliers and importers of temporary class drugs. Those found guilty of a temporary class drug offence could face up to 14 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

The Sentencing Council for England and Wales published new sentencing guidelines for drug offences which came into force from February 2012. (See Statistics below)


Drugs policy in the UK falls under the domain of the Home Office. This places it as a criminal matter and yet many argue drugs policy would be better overseen by the Department of Health. Similarly, the ABC drugs classification system has been criticised for combining physical and social harm caused with criminal penalties.

The UK adopts a policy of prohibition towards drugs. There is a body of thought that argues drugs policy should shift from abstinence education and government attempts to disrupt supply to harm reduction policies. Small-scale versions of this approach tend to target existing addicts and focus on teaching people to avoid overdose, needle exchanges and opioid substitutes.

It has also been argued that criminalising all drugs by definition creates a criminal subculture to meet demand for recreational substances. This in turn has been linked to other forms of crimes including gang violence. However, calls to legalise all drugs are politically unpopular and the late Mo Mowlam is one of the few members of the political establishment to have made the case for legalising all hard drugs.

The ABC system for classifying drugs has come under intense criticism, both from within parliament and the scientific community.

Numerous sources have accused the ABC system of inconsistency, noting that the criminal penalties ascribed to various drugs do not always equate to the harm caused.
A study published in the Lancet in spring 2007 concluded UK drugs policy was not fit for purpose. Looking at the harm caused by various narcotic substances, it found alcohol was the fifth most dangerous drug available, following heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone, yet it is not included in the ABC system. Tobacco emerged as the ninth most dangerous drug, ahead of cannabis and the Class A drugs ecstasy and LSD.

The decision to include or reclassify a drug in the ABC system is invariably met with further controversy. Rising expectation in 2006 that crystal meth was set to surge in popularity in the UK led many to argue it should be reclassified as a Class A drug, underscoring the harm caused by the amphetamine. However, concerns were raised the resultant publicity from reclassifying the drug would draw attention to its effects and inadvertently increase its use. Nevertheless, in January 2007, crystal meth was reclassified as a Class A drug.

The reclassification of cannabis has provoked similar controversy. In 2004 it was revised downwards from a Class B to a Class C drug after it was argued this would give police more time to concentrate on 'hard' drug users. In practice this meant it was unlikely an adult caught in possession of cannabis would be arrested and charged. Instead they would likely receive a warning and have the drug confiscated, unless certain conditions applied.

A selection of anti-drug campaigners, scientists and MPs argued the reclassification of cannabis was inappropriate and ignored the evidence that stronger strains of 'skunk' cause more harm than the cannabis available during the 1960s and 1970s. In summer 2007 Gordon Brown indicated he was prepared to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug and and in January 2009, the government reclassified cannabis as a Class B drug. The decision was part of the 2008 drug strategy: Drugs: protecting families and communities.

The decision to ban mephedrone in 2010 was also controversial, with one member of the ACMD resigning over the issue. In his resignation letter Eric Carlin said: "We had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people's behaviour. Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure."

Mephedrone, also known as MCAT, meow and bubbles, was said to be increasingly popular amongst recreational drug users and suggestions that the drug had been involved in over 20 deaths attracted considerable media attention. Several serious side effects had been reported, but as the charity DrugScope pointed out, there was "no significant clinical literature" available on the effects of mephedrone and the other cathinone derivatives.

An editorial in The Lancet suggested the ACMD did not have sufficient evidence to judge the harms caused by this drug class and warned: "Making the drug illegal will also deter crucial research on this drug and other drug-related behaviour, and it will be far more difficult for people with problems to get help."

Sentencing for drug offences also attracts controversy. DrugScope expressed particular concern about seemingly high sentencing tariffs for women coerced or intimidated into trafficking drugs (‘drug mules’) and welcomed the new sentencing guidelines published in 2012 by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales. The charity felt this particular concern had been "partly addressed" by the new guidelines, but remained concerned  that  the sentences for 'drug mules' may still be "lengthy".

DrugScope also welcomed the Council’s decision that community orders should be considered as a realistic alternative to prison for drug dependent individuals, and questioned once again whether using the criminal justice system to respond to offences of drug possession was "the most effective way to reduce drug-related harms both to individuals and the wider community."


In accordance with section 120 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the Sentencing Council issues this definitive guideline. It applies to all offenders aged 18 and older, who are sentenced on or after 27 February 2012, regardless of the date of the offence.

1) Fraudulent evasion of a prohibition by bringing into or taking out of the UK a controlled drug
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (section 3)
Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 (section 170(2))

Class A:
Maximum: Life imprisonment
Offence range: 3 years 6 months – 16 years' custody
Class B:
Maximum: 14 years' custody and/or unlimited fine
Offence range: 12 weeks to 10 years' custody
Class C:
Maximum: 14 years' custody and/or unlimited fine
Offence range: Community order – 8 years' custody

2) Supplying or offering to supply a controlled drug
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (section 4(3))
Possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply it to another
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (section 5(3))

Class A:
Maximum: Life imprisonment
Offence range: Community order – 16 years' custody
Class B:
Maximum: 14 years' custody and/or unlimited fine
Offence range: Fine – 10 years' custody
Class C:
Maximum: 14 years' custody and/or unlimited fine
Offence range: Fine – 8 years' custody

3) Production of a controlled drug
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (section 4(2)(a) or (b)

Class A
Maximum: Life imprisonment
Offence range: Community order – 16 years’ Class B:
Maximum: 14 years’ custody
Offence range: Discharge – 10 years’ custody
Class C:
Maximum: 14 years’ custody
Offence range: Discharge – 8 years’ custody

4) Cultivation of a cannabis plant
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (section 6(2))

Maximum: 14 years’ custody
Offence range: Discharge – 10 years’ custody

5) Permitting premises to be used
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (section 8)

Class A:
Maximum: 14 years’ custody
Offence range: Community order – 4 years’ custody
Class B:
Maximum: 14 years’ custody
Offence range: Fine – 18 months’ custody
Class C:
Maximum: 14 years’ custody
Offence range: Discharge – 26 weeks’ custody

6) Possession of a controlled drug
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (section 5(2))

Class A:
Maximum: 7 years’ custody
Offence range: Fine – 51 weeks’ custody
Class B:
Maximum: 5 years’ custody
Offence range: Discharge – 26 weeks’ custody
Class C:
Maximum: 2 years’ custody
Offence range: Discharge – Community order

Source: Sentencing Council for England and Wales – February 2012



"The Sentencing Council’s guideline brings sentencing guidance together for the first time to help ensure consistent and proportionate sentencing and provide effective guidance for sentencers and clear information for victims, witnesses and the public on how drug offenders are sentenced."

Sentencing Council. Drug Offences: Definitive Guideline – February 2012

“It’s clear that the Sentencing Council has carried out a careful and considered consultation on sentencing for drug offences. We’re pleased that the Council has taken on board much of the evidence submitted by organisations such as DrugScope.
“As a result of these changes to the guidelines, we are hopeful that more judges will feel able to refer people who are dependent on drugs for treatment as part of a sentence for a drug-related offence. Good quality treatment is instrumental to breaking the cycle of drugs and crime which blight the lives of many individuals and communities."

Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope – 2012

Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.