The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, with amendments, is the main law regulating drug control in the UK. It divides controlled substances into three classes (A, B and C), which provide a basis for attributing penalties for offences.
Maximum penalties vary not only according to the class of substance but also according to whether the conviction is made at a magistrates’ court for a summary offence or made on indictment following a trial at a Crown Court.
Drug use per se is not an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; it is the possession of the drug that constitutes an offence. Summary convictions for the unlawful possession of Class A drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, involve penalties of up to six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine; on indictment, penalties may reach seven years’ imprisonment. Possession of Class B drugs, such as cannabis and amphetamines, incurs penalties of up to three months’ imprisonment and/ or a fine at magistrate level; on indictment, the penalty is up to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. Possession of most Class C drugs, such as barbiturates, attracts a penalty of up to three months’ imprisonment and/ or a fine at magistrate level; or up to two years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine on indictment. There are also a number of alternative responses, such as cannabis warnings and cautions from the police, who have considerable powers of discretion.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, a distinction is made between the possession of controlled drugs and possession with intent to supply to another; the latter is, effectively, refers to drug trafficking offences. The Drug Trafficking Act 1994 defines drug trafficking as transporting or storing, importing or exporting, manufacturing or supplying drugs covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The penalties applied depend on
Legal penalties: the possibility of incarceration for possession of drugs for personal use (minor offence)
NBYear of data 2015.
Reported drug law offences and offenders in the United Kingdom
NBYear of data 2014.
the classification of the drug and on the penal procedure (magistrate level or Crown Court level). For trafficking in Class A drugs, the maximum penalty on indictment is life imprisonment, while trafficking of Class B and C drugs can incur a penalty of up to 14 years in prison. Under Section 110 Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, a minimum sentence of seven years was introduced for a third conviction for trafficking in Class A drugs. In addition, temporary class drug orders were introduced through the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to allow a faster legislative response to new psychoactive substances (NPS) supply offences.
In 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act criminalised the production, supply or possession with intent to supply of any psychoactive substance knowing that it is to be used for its psychoactive effects.
Supply offences are aggravated by proximity to school, using a minor as a courier or being carried out in a custodial institution. Simple possession of NPS does not constitute an offence unless it takes place within a custodial institution. Maximum penalties are seven years’ imprisonment on indictment or one year on summary conviction.
Drug law offences (DLO) data are a measure of law enforcement activity and drug market dynamics and may be used to inform policies. After increasing between 2006/07 and 2010/11, the number of arrests for drug law offences has decreased in recent years, although they remain higher than the levels before 2006/07. In 2014, approximately 128 260 convictions or cautions for drug offences were reported in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Of the offences in which the drug involved was recorded (in England, Wales and Scotland), 50.8 % were cannabis related, 14.5 % were cocaine related (excluding crack cocaine) and 8.9 % were heroin related.