The law on Class A Drugs in the UK is enforced as part of wider legislation under The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Medicines Act.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
This legislation was introduced to prohibit the use of drugs for reasons that were not medically related and it controls not only medicinal drugs which are defined in the Medicines Act but also class a drugs which have no medical use. As a law which is primarily aimed at the general public rather than medical providers, any drug under this act will be referred to as a controlled drug.
Furthermore, the legislation describes a set of offences which prohibit the supply, intention to supply, unlawful production, import or export of any drugs which are listed in the legislation. The Police have specific powers that they can use to stop, search and where drugs are found, detain an individual who are reasonably suspected to be in possession of a controlled drug. The law on class a drugs and in general is very complex and The Misuse of Drugs Act clearly defines a controlled drug, categorising them into three categories or classes;
- Class A Drugs– This is the most serious drug offence and drugs in this category typically include cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, methadone, methamphetamine also known as crystal meth and magic mushrooms. Class A also includes a Class B drug which is injected.
- Class B – Barbiturates, codeine, ketamine, amphetamine and all variations of cathinone such as methylone, methedrone, mephedrone and MDPV
- Class C – GHB, Khat, anabolic steroids, GBL and tranquillisers
An offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act includes a number of things including;
- The possession of a drug which has been listed as ‘controlled’
- Possession with an intention of supplying the drug to others
- The production, manufacture or cultivation of a controlled drug
- Supplying another individual with a controlled drug or offering to supply another person
- Import or export of a controlled drug
- Allowing a building or premises that you own or occupy to be used for the use, supply or production of controlled drugs
If the controlled drug has been obtained by prescription such as a barbiturate, methadone, mild tranquilliser or amphetamine possession cannot be classed as illegal.
Exceptions to the Law
The law on drugs is further complicated by the fact that some drugs fall under other pieces of legislation while others are not covered at all or mentioned in the Misuse of Drugs Act which makes matters even more complex.
The following are classed as exceptions;
- Alcohol – It is legal for a child over the age of 5 to consume alcohol provided that it is not carried out in a pub or other licensed premises. It is an offence however for vendors to knowingly sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 18 years. Children aged 14 can enter a pub alone but they are not allowed to consume any alcohol. Young people who are 16 years old can purchase and drink port, cider or beer in a pub if they are having a meal in a designated eating area. They are not permitted to consume any spirits. In some local authorities there are laws which prohibit the consumption of alcohol in the street and the Police have the power to confiscate alcohol from any young person under the age of 18 who are drinking in a public place.
- GBL (Gamma-Butyrolactone) – odourless and colourless liquid which results in euphoria and has the same effect as a sedative. Although it is a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs law, it is used in industry and is available to businesses with the correct registration. An offence is committed if the substance is supplied for the purpose of being ingested.
- Poppers (Amyl or Liquid Gold) – This drug is not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act and it is not illegal to possess or buy this drug. Although they have not been fully tested in a court of law, the Medicines Control Agency states that they are regarded as a medicine and therefore covered under the Medicines Act 1968. As such, only licensed businesses such as a chemist can sell the drug.
- Solvents (Glue, Gas and Aerosols) – None of these are illegal to use, buy or possess, but it is against the law for any shop owner to sell them to under 18s if they know that they are going to be used for the wrong reason. Government legislation has also been extended to cover the sale of lighter fluid to under 18s.
- Anabolic Steroids – Controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and a class C drug, the legal status of these are complex. In the majority of cases, if an individual is found in possession, they are unlikely to face criminal charges.Nevertheless, in some areas of the UK, police have documented successful prosecution for the possession of steroids and it is always considered to be an offence to sell or supply steroids to another individual.
- Tobacco – It is not an offence to use tobacco or cigarettes but it is an offence for a vendor to sell tobacco or a related product to anyone under the age of 18 years.
- Tranquillisers – Although controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act as a Class C drug, anyone found in possession will not be prosecuted. It is an offence however to supply them to another individual. The only exceptions to this rule are Rohyphnol and Temazepam which are illegal to possess without a prescription.
Law on Drugs and Penalties
The maximum penalty for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act are as follows;
- Class A Drugs– For possession, 7 years in prison and a fine, for supply life in prison and a fine
- Class B – For possession 5 years in prison and a fine, for supply 14 years in prison and a fine
- Class C – For possession 2 years in prison and a fine and for supply 14 years in prison
The nature of the offence will often indicate the length of the sentence. As a general rule, sentences are usually longer for serious offences such as trafficking, production or allowing premises to be used for the supply of drugs. Sentences can also vary depending on the harm that may be caused by the drug.
Less serious drug offences are usually processed in the Magistrates Court. Sentences cannot usually be issued for longer than six months and fines cannot be higher than £5,000. The majority of convictions for drugs relate to unlawful possession. The maximum penalties for drug offences are severe but only around one person in five will receive a custodial sentence and the majority of fines are for £50 or, sometimes even less than this.
Regulations and Drug Laws
The majority of controlled drugs do have a medical use while others have generated interest from a scientific perspective. The legislation allows government to allow the supply, production, possession, import and/or export of drugs provided they are for scientific or medical purposes. These prohibitions are outlined in the ‘regulations’ section of the Act.
When they are licensed by the Home Office, even the most restricted drugs can be supplied or possessed for research purposes. These drugs are strictly for the use of medical purposes and are not available for normal use in medical terms. The majority are only available via prescription.
The law on class A drugs is very complex and the legislation has been introduced as a deterrent to prevent the supply and possession of controlled drugs.