Skip to main content

For a safer, faster, better experience online you should upgrade your browser. Find out more about browsers Close

Policy Reducing drugs misuse and dependence


Between 2011 and 2012, an estimated 8.9% of adults in used an illegal drug. For young people aged between 16 and 24, the figure was 19.3%. Although this is the lowest level of drug use since we started collecting figures in 1996, drug misuse continues to have a negative effect on the health, wellbeing and quality of life of too many people.

It also drains public resources. For example, crimes related to drugs cost the UK £13.3 billion every year.


We want to reduce the number of people misusing illegal drugs and other harmful drugs and increase the number of people who successfully recover from dependence on these drugs. We also want to restrict the supply of drugs and identify and prosecute those involved in the drug trade.

We also have plans for reducing harmful drinking.

Preventing young people from becoming drug misusers

It is important that we encourage young people to live healthy lives and that they know the dangers of misusing drugs. We also need drug services to help young people as soon as possible if they have a problem with drugs.

We are:

  • supporting children in the first years of their life so that we reduce the risk of them engaging in risky behaviour (like misusing drugs) later in life
  • providing accurate information on drugs and alcohol through drug education and the FRANK service
  • making it easier for headteachers to take action against pupils who are found dealing drugs in school
  • through the Business Rates Retention Scheme (which includes what was the Early Intervention Grant), giving £2 billion to local councils, between 2014 and 2015, which they can use to create programmes to help prevent young people misusing drugs in the first place
  • helping young people who have problems with drugs by giving them treatment and support, including supporting them in other areas of their life (for example with housing or mental health problems), so that they don’t return to drug use as a way of coping with these problems

Helping people recover from drug dependence

We want people who are dependent on drugs to be free of drugs for good. We also want treatment to include help with problems that might encourage people to start misusing drugs again after they are drug free.

We’re testing a new way of commissioning treatment services that for the first time involves ‘payment by results’ - paying treatment providers for getting 3 types of results:

  • services users become free from dependence on drugs and/or alcohol
  • reduced re-offending or continued non-offending
  • improved health and wellbeing

We are piloting this approach in 8 areas over 2 years, and it will be independently evaluated.

Helping offenders who misuse drugs get treatment

Prison isn’t always the best place for offenders who misuse drugs. Our Drugs Intervention Programme refers offenders to treatment services as early as possible in their contact with the criminal justice system.

We are:

  • making the programme more flexible, so that local areas can adapt it to suit their local communities
  • launching new ‘recovery wings’ in prison, to help prisoners become drug free before they move back into the community
  • funding a programme to support prisoners who have recovered from drug dependence when they move back into the community, so that they are less likely to go back to misusing drugs

Providing information on what works best

From April 2013, local councils, supported by Public Health England (PHE), will have responsibility for helping people to live a drug-free life. They will be able to create information, support and treatment services that meet the needs of their local communities.

We will continue to fund research into what works best – and we will share that information with PHE, local councils and other relevant organisations to use in their services.

Restricting the supply of illegal drugs

We restrict the supply of illegal drugs by classifying and controlling drugs, including new psychoactive substances (known as ‘legal highs’).

The establishment of the National Crime Agency will help us co-ordinate national and international efforts to reduce the supply of drugs.


In 2010, we published the national drug strategy for England. The strategy sets out our plans for helping people to live a drug free life.

We publish annual reviews of the strategy. These update our progress in meeting the aims of the strategy and identifying priorities for the coming year. Our first annual review of the strategy reports on the progress we have made and sets out the steps we will take next.

Positive trends in a number of areas include:

  • drug use remains at its lowest level since measurement began in 1996, across all age ranges (children and young people as well as adults)
  • numbers of people completing drug treatment free of dependence are at a record level
  • drug-related deaths have fallen over the last 3 years

Who we’re working with

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is an independent expert body that advises government on drug-related issues in the UK.

The Home Secretary and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs work to a joint working protocol. This covers their roles and responsibilities in commissioning and receiving drug-related advice, as well as the membership of the Advisory Council and processes for temporary class drug orders.

Each year, after consulting other relevant government departments, the Home Secretary writes to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to set out the government’s drug priorities. The Advisory Council will include these in its work programme, along with the work it has chosen to consider.

Bills and legislation

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is the main law to control and classify drugs that are ‘dangerous or otherwise harmful’ when misused.

The act lists all illegal (or controlled) drugs in the UK and divides them into one of 3 ‘classes’ – A, B and C – based on the harm they cause to individuals and society. Class A drugs are considered the most harmful. This is commonly known as the drug classification system.

The act makes it illegal for people to:

  • possess illegal drugs
  • possess illegal drugs with intent to supply
  • supply or offer to supply illegal drugs (including giving them away for free or sharing with others)
  • produce illegal drugs
  • import or export illegal drugs
  • allow a house, flat or office to be used by people to undertake any of these unlawful activities

Illegal drugs can be added to the act by a parliamentary order after consultation with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The Secretary of State can temporarily add new drugs to the list of controlled substances until a decision is made about whether they should be permanently controlled.

The act provides the flexibility to control harmful drugs (including under a temporary class drug order) by:

  • naming them or defining them by chemical name individually, such as cannabis and cocaine
  • the use of generic definitions which capture families of drugs that are chemically related, or potential analogues and derivatives of, the main drug, for example, anabolic steroids, cathinones, piperazines, synthetic cannabinoid agonists, phenethylamines and tryptamines
  • capturing simple derivatives, such as salts, esters or ethers, of the controlled drugs (whether these are defined individually or captured by generic definitions)

The act and its associated regulations also enable organisations to carry out legitimate activities involving controlled (illegal) drugs, many of which are used in healthcare.

Since 2010, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has been amended to control new drugs, including a number of new psychoactive substances:

  • a new range of synthetic cannabinoids, methoxetamine and other related compounds and O-desmethyltramadol
  • desoxypipradrol (2-DPMP), its related compounds and phenazepam
  • naphyrone and other synthetic cathinones, tapentadol and amineptine

Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001

The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 allow for the lawful possession and supply of controlled (illegal) drugs for legitimate purposes.

They cover prescribing, administering, safe custody, dispensing, record keeping, destruction and disposal of controlled drugs to prevent diversion for misuse.

In 2012, we made a number of changes to the 2001 Regulations. The changes covered:

  • nurse and pharmacist independent prescribers
  • the mixing of medicines for administration to patients that include controlled (illegal) drugs
  • possession authorities under patient group directions

Other regulations

The Misuse of Drugs (Safe Custody) Regulations 1973 set the minimum storage requirements for some illegal (or controlled) drugs. They apply to care homes and retail pharmacies, and are applied as minimum standards in other healthcare settings.

The Misuse of Drugs (Supply to Addicts) Regulations 1997 restrict the prescribing of cocaine, diamorphine and dipipanone for the treatment of addiction to doctors licensed by the Home Office (and in Scotland, by the Scottish government).