Drugs and the law

The different kinds of controlled drugs, often referred to as 'illegal drugs', are divided into three different categories, or classes. These classes (A, B and C) carry different levels of penalty for possession and dealing.

The Misuse of Drugs Act is the main piece of legislation covering drugs and their categorisation.

Penalties for possession and dealing

Possession: Dealing:
Class A Ecstasy, LSD, heroin, cocaine, crack, magic mushrooms, amphetamines (if prepared for injection). Up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine or both. Up to life in prison or an unlimited fine or both.
Class B Amphetamines, Cannabis, Methylphenidate (Ritalin), Pholcodine. Up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine or both. Up to 14 years in prison or an unlimited fine or both.
Class C Tranquilisers, some painkillers, Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Ketamine. Up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine or both. Up to 14 years in prison or an unlimited fine or both.

All of the drugs on the list above - whether Class A, B or C - are designated as controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Class A drugs are considered to be the most likely to cause harm.

The Misuse of Drugs Act states that it is an offence to:

  • possess a controlled substance unlawfully
  • possess a controlled substance with intent to supply it
  • supply or offer to supply a controlled drug (even if it is given away for free)
  • allow a house, flat or office to be used by people taking drugs

Drug trafficking attracts serious punishment, including life imprisonment for Class A offences.


Cannabis was reclassified from Class C to Class B in January 2009.

Penalties for supply, dealing, production and trafficking

The maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment.

Penalties for possession

The maximum penalty is five years imprisonment.

Young people in possession of cannabis

A young person found to be in possession of cannabis will be arrested and taken to a police station where they can receive a reprimand, final warning or charge depending on the seriousness of the offence.

Following one reprimand, any further offence will lead to a final warning or charge. Any further offence following a warning will normally result in criminal charges. After a final warning, the young offender must be referred to a Youth Offending Team to arrange a rehabilitation programme.

This police enforcement is consistent with the structured framework for early juvenile offending established under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Adults in possession of cannabis

Anyone caught in possession of cannabis could be arrested.

Alternatively, police may:

  • issue a warning (primarily for first-time offenders)
  • issue a penalty notice for disorder, with an on-the-spot fine of £80

2010 drug strategy

On 8 December 2010, the government released its new drug strategy 'Reducing demand, restricting supply, building recovery: supporting people to live a drug-free life'.
You can view the strategy and its associated documents.

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