Drugs and the law

Each illegal drug is put into a different 'class'. The law on drugs is complex. But if you're caught with an illegal substance, ignorance won't wash with the police. Here's what you need to know.

handcuffs and pills

What Class is what?

Illegal drugs are divided into different ‘classes’ by the Misuse of Drugs Act. If you’re caught with drugs, the punishment you’ll get depends on what class the drug is. You’ll also face different punishments depending on whether you were just in possession of it, or if you intended to supply it to others.

What different classes of drugs are there?

Class A

Class B

  • Amphetamines (speed), cannabis, codeine.
  • Maximum penalties: five years in prison and/or a fine for possession, 14 years in prison and/or a fine for possession with intent to supply.

Class C

  • Ketamine, some tranquillisers like Temazepam, the supply of anabolic steroids;
  • Maximum penalties: two years in prison and/or a fine for possession, 14 years prison and/or a fine for possession with intent to supply.

These penalties are given in a Crown Court. In a Magistrates Court, where less serious offences are dealt with, the maximum sentence is six months imprisonment and a £5000 fine. The actual sentence you’re likely to get will also depend on:

  • The drug involved;
  • Any previous criminal record;
  • Your personal circumstances (i.e. being a single parent);
  • The attitude of the presiding magistrate/judge.

Some other drugs are controlled by the Medicines Act. It may not be illegal to possess drugs such as prescription medicines, but supply is still an offence.

Other drug laws

Most drugs are covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act. These ones aren’t:

  • Alcohol: There are lots of laws about alcohol, covering where it can be sold, who too, and where you can drink it.
  • Solvents: It is not illegal to use, but a shopkeeper can be prosecuted for selling a solvent to under-18s who they know will use it for sniffing;
  • Cigarettes: It is illegal for a shopkeeper to knowingly sell to under-18s;
  • Amyl nitrates (poppers): Amyl nitrate is a prescription-only medicine. Possession is not an offence, but supply is restricted by the Medicines Act. Butyl and Isobutyl nitrate are not restricted in any way. The stuff available from jokes and sex shops is usually butyl or isobutyl nitrate. If any amyl nitrate is present, however, then supply is restricted. Use is not.

From May 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force. This act doesn’t replace the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), but it does make it an offence to produce or supply legal highs. It isn’t an offence to possess them.

Drug testing on arrest

If you’re arrested and taken to a police station, you may be tested to find out if you’ve taken any Class A drugs. You may be tested if you’ve been arrested for a ‘trigger offence’. Trigger offences include street robbery, burglary, car theft, handling stolen goods or supplying drugs.

A person cannot be forced to provide a sample for testing, but it is an offence to refuse to provide a sample without good cause.

If you test positive for Class A drugs, you’ll be required to attend a compulsory drug assessment by specialist drugs workers. The assessment will determine the extent of your drug problem and help you into treatment and other support, even if you’re not charged with an offence.

Those who fail to provide a sample or comply with a required assessment face a fine of up to £2,500 and/or up to three months in prison.

Next Steps

  • Release offers free and confidential advice on everything to do with drugs and drugs law. 0845 4500 215
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


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Updated on 29-Sep-2015

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