UK drug laws

Laws on research chemicals in the UK

The United Kingdom is widely regarded as having some of the most focussed and robust legislation covering research chemical legality. Under UK analogue law, there is no need to demonstrate intent for human consumption. Instead specific chemical derivatives of controlled substances are explicitly identified in highly detailed analogue laws. This effectively makes whole families of existing and conceivable research chemicals controlled. These laws are dynamic and frequently amended to prohibit novel structural families of research chemical.

Since the U.K. system relies on explicitly identifying chemical modifications which are considered to be analogues, novel chemicals can be designed to circumvent the existing laws, if only for a short period of time. An example of this is the beta-ketone family of research chemicals. Despite being analogues of both cathinone and methcathinone (both class C controlled substances) there is currently no law stating that substituted methcathinone derivatives are considered to be analogues. Additionally there is no clause indicating that beta-keto modifications of substituted amphetamines are controlled. For this reason mephedrone and methylone remain technically legal to possess, despite their apparent structural similarity to cathinones, methamphetamine, and in the case of methylone, to MDMA.

Research Chemical families specifically controlled under U.K. law:

  • 2C-x (substituted phenethylamines) – class A, last refined in Misuse of Phenethylamines Act 2002
  • DOx (substituted amphetamines) – class A, last refined in Misuse of Phenethylamines Act 2002
  • JWH-x (synthetic cannabinoids) – class B, amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effective from 23rd December 2009

Piperazine derivatives – class C, amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effective from 23rd December 2009. Piperazine itself is also controlled under the Medicines Act.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

This act is intended to prevent the non-medical use of certain drugs. For this reason it controls not just medicinal drugs (which will also be in the Medicines Act) but also drugs with no current medical uses. Offences under this Act overwhelmingly involve the general public, and even when the same drug and a similar offence are involved, penalties are far tougher. Drugs subject to this Act are known as 'controlled' drugs. The law defines a series of offences, including unlawful supply, intent to supply, import or export (all these are collectively known as 'trafficking' offences), and unlawful production. The main difference from the Medicines Act is that the Misuse of Drugs Act also prohibits unlawful possession. To enforce this law the police have the special powers to stop, detain and search people on 'reasonable suspicion' that they are in possession of a controlled drug.

The laws controlling drug use are complicated. The Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) regulates what are termed controlled drugs. It divides drugs into three classes as follows:

Class A:
These include, cocaine and crack (a form of cocaine), ecstasy, heroin, LSD, methadone, methamphetamine (crystal meth), magic mushrooms containing ester of psilocin and any Class B drug which is injected.

Class B:
These include amphetamine (not methamphetamine), barbiturates, codeine and cannabis.

Class C:
These include anabolic steroids and minor tranquillisers.

Class A drugs are treated by the law as the most dangerous. Offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act can include:

* Possession of a controlled drug.
* Possession with intent to supply another person.
* Production, cultivation or manufacture of controlled drugs.
* Supplying another person with a controlled drug.
* Offering to supply another person with a controlled drug.
* Import or export of controlled drugs.

* Allowing premises you occupy or manage to be used for the consumption of certain controlled drugs (smoking of cannabis or opium but not use of other controlled drugs) or supply or production of any controlled drug.

N.B. Certain controlled drugs such as amphetamines, barbiturates, methadone, minor tranquillisers and occasionally heroin can be obtained through a legitimate doctor’s prescription. In such cases their possession is not illegal.

The law is even more complicated by the fact that some drugs are covered by other laws, are not covered at all or treated in an exceptional way under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Maximum penalties under the Misuse of Drugs Act are as follows:

Drug Class



Class A 7 years + fine Life + fine
Class B 5 years + fine 14 years + fine
Class C 2 years + fine 14 years + fine

What happens to people who commit drug offences varies in different parts of the UK? Police forces in some areas are more likely to caution than in other areas. Some local police forces are more likely than others to charge people and take them to court. What happens in courts also varies. Some courts are more likely to give out custodial sentences or large fines than others.

UPDATE 24-1-12 - new sentencing guidleines come into force on 27-1-12 regardless of when you were first arrested. 


Not illegal for an over 5 year old to consume away from licensed premises. It is an offence for a vendor to knowingly sell to an under 18 year old. A 14 year old can go into a pub alone but not consume alcohol. A 16 year old can buy and consume beer, port, cider or perry (but not spirits) in a pub if having a meal in an area set aside for this purpose. In some areas there are by laws restricting drinking of alcohol on the streets at any age. Police also have powers to confiscate alcohol from under 18s who drink in public places.

GHB (gammahydroxybutyrate)

A colourless, odourless liquid which comes in a small bottle and has sedative and euphoric effects. It is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act so possession is an offence.


Usually comes as a powder. The initial rush is usually followed by feelings of dissociation and an anaesthetic type experience. It is commonly used as an animal tranquilliser and for surgery on animals. As of January 1st 2006 Ketamine is a class C Drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.


A plant that is grown in eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Chewing the leaves has a stimulant effect. Some Khat is imported to the UK and sold in greengrocers, specialist health food shops and some ‘head’ shops. The Khat plant (the main form in which khat is sold) is not covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act and possession or supply is not an offence.

Magic mushrooms

Now a Class A drug under the Drugs Act 2005. " fungus (of any kind) which contains psilocin or an ester of psilocin". This does not include Fly Agaric which is still legal.

Poppers (liquid gold, amyl or butyl nitrite)

Are not covered by the MDA and are not illegal to possess or buy. They are often sold in joke and sex shops but also in some pubs, clubs, tobacconists and sometimes music or clothes shops used by young people. Though not fully tested in court, the Medicines Control Agency has stated that poppers is regarded by them as a medicine and so falls under the Medicines Act 1968. This allows only licensed outlets, such as chemists, to sell the drug.

Solvents (aerosols, gases, glues etc.)

Not illegal to possess, use or buy at any age. In England and Wales it is an offence for a shopkeeper to sell them to an under 18 year old if they know they are to be used for intoxicating purposes. The Government has extended this legislation to make it illegal for shopkeepers to sell lighter fuel (butane) to under 18s whether or not they know it will be used for intoxicating purposes. This law came into force on 1st Oct 1999, although it was not an ‘extension’ to the Intoxicating Substances Supply Act, but an amendment to the Consumer Protection Act

Anabolic Steroids

Controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act as class C drugs but their legal status is complicated. In most situations the possession offence is waived meaning that people who possess or use steroids without a prescription are unlikely to be prosecuted. However, in some areas of the UK police have successfully prosecuted people for possession of steroids when the steroids have not been in the form of a medicinal product. It is always an offence to sell or supply steroids to another person. People can also be prosecuted for possession with intent to supply if they have large quantities of steroids without a prescription for them.


It is not an offence for people of any age to use cigarettes or other tobacco products. It is an offence for a vendor to sell tobacco products to someone they know to be under 18 years old. Since 1st July 2007 smoking in public places has been banned in the UK.

Minor Tranquillisers (librium, valium etc)

Controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act as Class C drugs but the possession offence is waived so that it is not illegal to possess or use them without a prescription. It is an offence to sell or supply them to another person. The exception is temazepam and rohypnol tranquillisers which are illegal to be in possession of without a prescription.


Maximum sentences differ according to the nature of the offence - less for possession; more for trafficking, production, or for allowing premises to be used for producing or supplying drugs. They also vary according to how harmful the drug is thought to be.

Class A has the highest penalties (seven years and/or unlimited fine for possession; life and/or fine for production or trafficking). This class includes the more potent of the opioid painkillers, hallucinogens, such as LSD and ecstasy, and cocaine.

Class B has lower maximum penalties for possession (five years and/or fine) and includes less potent opioids, strong synthetic stimulants, and sedatives. Cannabis possession for personal use often receives a caution or in some places a warning and confiscation of the drug.

Class C has the lowest penalties (two years and/or fine for possession; fourteen years and/or fine for trafficking) and includes cannabis, tranquillisers, some less potent stimulants, and dextropropoxyphene, a mild opioid analgesic.

Any Class B drug prepared for injection counts as Class A. Less serious offences are usually dealt with by magistrates' courts, where sentences can't exceed six months and/or £5,000 fine, or three months and/or fine for less serious offences. Eighty five per cent of all drug offenders are convicted of unlawful possession. Although maximum penalties are severe, just over 20 per cent of offenders receive a custodial sentence (even fewer actually go to prison), and nearly 3/4 of fines are £50 or less.

Section 8 Amendment

In 2001, the Government passed an amendment to Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. The new amendment which made it a criminal offence for people to knowingly allow premises they own, manage, or have responsibility for, to be used by any other person for:

* administration or use of any controlled drugs
* supply of any controlled drug
* the production or cultivation of controlled drugs, such as growing cannabis

Professionals could be prosecuted if they knowingly allowed any of these things to occur on work premises. The same legal obligations applied to people with regard to their own homes. The law required that if staff become aware of the use or supply of illicit drugs on their premises, they must take reasonable action to prevent this continuing.

THE AMENDMENT TO SECTION 8 HAS NEVER BEEN IMPLEMENTED. It is still an offence to allow premises to be used for the smoking of cannabis and opium.

2005 - Drugs Act

This Act came into force on 1st January 2006. It includes the following clauses:

• A reversal of the burden of proof in cases where suspects are found in possession of a quantity of drugs greater than that which would be required for personal use. In other words - it will be up to the defendant to prove there was no intent to supply. The actual amount has yet to be defined.

• Compulsory drug-testing of arrestees where police have “reasonable grounds” for believing that Class A drugs were involved in the commission of an offence. Failure to comply with this testing is itself an offence and positive tests can lead to compulsory drug treatment assessment.

• The inclusion of fresh Liberty Cap or “magic” mushrooms in Class A of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Before this Bill, only dried or prepared mushrooms were considered illegal.

• The Act has also linked drug legislation with measures to deal with Anti-Social Behaviour so that anyone given an Anti Social Behaviour Order must undergo compulsory testing and drug treatment.

Customs and Excise Management Act 1979

Together with the Misuses of Drugs Act, the Customs and Excise Act penalises unauthorised import or export of controlled drugs. The maximum penalties are the same as for other trafficking offences except that in a magistrates court fines can reach up to three times the value of the drugs seized.

Road Traffic Act 1972

It is an offence to be in charge of a motor vehicle while ‘unfit to drive through drink or drugs’. The drugs can include illegal drugs, prescribed medicines or solvents.

Drug Trafficking Act 1994

It is an offence to sell articles for the preparation or administration of controlled drugs – such as cocaine snorting kits. The Act also allows for the seizure of assets and income of someone who is found guilty of drug trafficking, even if the assets and income cannot be shown to have come from the proceeds of drug trafficking.

Crime and Disorder Act 1998

This Act introduces, for the first time, enforceable drug treatment and testing orders, for people convicted of crimes committed in order to maintain their drug use.

Possessing cannabis - cannabis is now classified as a Class B drug

The change of law to reclassify cannabis to a Class B means more severe penalties for people caught in possession of cannabis. Police will take action and you can be arrested even if it is the first time you are caught.

Over 18s

 If caught in possession of cannabis, as well as considering arrest and confiscating the drug police are likely to:

* give you a cannabis warning for a first offence of possession
* give you a Penalty Notice for Disorder (an on-the-spot fine of £80) for a second offence
* arrest you if it is the third time you have been caught with cannabis; this could lead to conviction and a criminal record.

Aged between 10 and 17
If you're caught in possession of cannabis, the police will confiscate the drug and may arrest you or refer you to a Youth Offending Team (YOT). The police are also likely to:

* give you a reprimand and tell your parents what has happened if it is the first time you’ve been caught
* give you a final warning and refer you to a YOT if it's your second offence
* arrest you if it is the third time you have been caught with cannabis, which could lead to a conviction and a criminal record

Intent to supply and dealing

Punishments for supplying drugs are a lot tougher than those for possession. You should also remember that supplying drugs doesn't just apply to dealers. If the police think you intended to share drugs with your friends, this is still considered as supplying.

The police are more likely to charge you if they suspect you intended to supply drugs, but will still take into account the amount of drugs that you had and your criminal record.

The maximum sentences for intent to supply drugs are:

* up to life in prison or an unlimited fine (or both) for a Class A drug
* up to 14 years in prison or an unlimited fine (or both) for a Class B or Class C drug

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