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The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is an Act of Parliament that forms the central piece of legislation around which the United Kingdommarker's drug policy is built. It represents UK action in line with treaty commitments under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.. No such Treaty is however in any way binding on the UK Courts or Parliament and these have not been incorporated into UK law.

The Act aims to control the possession and supply of ANY drug which is causing or may cause harm to society, such drugs become controlled drugs" under the Act. The Act covers ALL drugs or drug-like substances although the scheduling of various drugs (and the failure to so schedule any drug)is a function designated to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Although, for example, cannabis is listed under the schedules to the Act (as a class B drug since 26 January 2009), tobacco, another herb or plant source of drug material and alcohol are not listed despite the Act's neutrality in respect of its objects and purposes.

Offences under the Act include:
  • Possession of a controlled substance unlawfully
  • Possession of a controlled substance with intent to supply it
  • Supplying or offering to supply a controlled drug (even where no charge is made for the drug)
  • Allowing premises you occupy or manage to be used unlawfully for the purpose of producing or supplying controlled drugs

It is often presented as little more than a list of prohibited 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 medicines, and cannabis (hemp) may be grown under licence for 'industrial purposes'. The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, created under the 1971 Act, are about licensing of production, possession and supply of substances classified under the act.

The act creates three classes of controlled substances, A, B, and C, 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 Parliamentmarker.

List of controlled drugs

The Act sets out three separate categories, Class A, Class B, and Class C. 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 has been commissioned and has reached a conclusion, although the Secretary of State is not bound by the council's findings.


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 heroin, a class A drug, so long as it was administered to them legally (by prescription).

Class A drugs attract the highest penalty, and imprisonment is both "proper and expedient". 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

International cooperation

The act makes it a crime to assist in, incite, or induce, the commission of an offence, 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 United Statesmarker drug dealer for the purpose of violating that country's Controlled Substances Act.


The Drugs Act 1964 controlled amphetamines in the United Kingdom 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 United Statesmarker influence had been brought to bear, particularly in United Nations circles, that controlling incidental drug activities was employed to effectively criminalise drugs use. However, it is important to note that, bar opium s8, under the 1971 Act drug use is not an offence.

Criticism and controversy

Notable criticism of the act includes:
  • Drug classification: making a hash of it?, Fifth Report of Session 2005–06, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which said that the present system of drug classification is based on historical assumptions, not scientific assessment.
  • Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse, David Nutt, Leslie A. King, William Saulsbury, Colin Blakemore, The Lancet, 24 March 2007, said the act is "not fit for purpose" and "the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the Misuse of Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary."

The Transform Drug Policy Foundation offers rational criticism of the harms caused by the Government's current prohibitionist drug policy. The Drug Equality Alliance has launched legal actions against the UK Government's partial and unequal administration of the Act's discretionary powers, making particular reference to the arbitrary exclusion of alcohol and tobacco on the subjective grounds of historical and cultural precedents contrary to the Act's policy and objects.

Classification of cannabis has become especially controversial. In 2004, cannabis was reclassified from class B to class C, in accordance with advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). In 2009, it was returned to class B, against ACMD advice.

In February 2009 the UK government was accused by its most senior expert drugs adviser Professor David Nutt of making a political decisions with regard to drug classification in rejecting the scientific advice to downgrade ecstasy from a class A drug. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) report on ecstasy, based on a 12-month study of 4,000 academic papers, concluded that it is nowhere near as dangerous as other class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, and should be downgraded to class B. The advice was not followed. Jacqui Smith, then Home Secretary, was also widely criticised by the scientific community for bullying Professor David Nutt into apologising for his comments that, in the course of a normal year, more people died from falling off horses than died from taking ecstasy. Professor Nutt was later sacked by Jacqui Smith's successor as Home Secretary Alan Johnson; Johnson saying "It is important that the government's messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them. I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD."


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