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Legal topic overviews: classification of controlled drugs

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EU Member States classify drugs and precursors according to the three UN Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 (abbreviated below to UN61, UN71 and UN88), controlling and supervising their legitimate scientific or medical use while taking into account the particular risks to public or individual health.

This Topic Overview looks at the UN system, the EU’s system of pan-European control, and finally gives a table outlining the similarities and differences of the national systems in the EU and Norway.

The UN system

Some 250 substances are listed in the Schedules annexed to the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (New York, 1961, amended 1972), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (Vienna, 1971) and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (introducing control on precursors) (Vienna, 1988). The purpose of this listing is to control and limit the use of these drugs according to a classification of their therapeutic value, risk of abuse and health dangers, and to minimize the diversion of precursor chemicals to illegal drug manufacturers.

Narcotic drugs

Narcotic drugs are classified and placed under international control by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended in 1972. The Single Convention limits 'exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs' (art. 4c).

The annex to the 1961 Convention classifies narcotic drugs in four Schedules:

Schedules Harmfulness Degree of control Examples of listed drugs

I

Substances with addictive properties, presenting a serious risk of abuse

Very strict; 'the drugs in Schedule I are subject to all measures of control applicable to drugs under this Convention' (art. 2.1)

Cannabis and its derivatives, cocaine, heroin, methadone, morphine, opium

II

Substances normally used for medical purposes and given the lowest risk of abuse

Less strict

Codeine, dihydrocodeine, propiram

III

Preparations of substances listed in Schedule II, as well as preparations of cocaine

Lenient; according to the World Health Organisation, these preparations present no risk of abuse

Preparations of codeine, dihydrocodeine, propiram

IV

The most dangerous substances, already listed in Schedule I, which are particularly harmful and of extremely limited medical or therapeutic value

Very strict, leading to a complete ban on 'the production, manufacture, export and import of, trade in, possession or use of any such drug except for amounts which may be necessary for medical and scientific research' (art. 2.5.b)

Cannabis and cannabis resin, heroin

Psychotropic substances

Psychotropic substances are placed under international control by the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The objectives of this Convention are again to limit the use of these substances to medical and scientific purposes (arts. 5 and 7). While some psychotropic substances may have therapeutic value, they also present a dangerous risk of abuse.

The annex to the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances also classifies substances in four Schedules:

Schedules Harmfulness Degree of control Examples of listed drugs

I

Substances presenting a high risk of abuse, posing a particularly, serious threat to public health which are of very little or no therapeutic value

Very strict; use is prohibited except for scientific or limited medical purposes

LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline, psilocybine, tetrahydrocannabinol

II

Substances presenting a risk of abuse, posing a serious threat to public health which are of low or moderate therapeutic value

Less strict

Amphetamines and amphetamine-type stimulants

III

Substances presenting a risk of abuse, posing a serious threat to public health which are of moderate or high therapeutic value

These substances are available for medical purposes

Barbiturates, including amobarbital, buprenorphine

IV

Substances presenting a risk of abuse, posing a minor threat to public health with a high therapeutic value

These substances are available for medical purposes

Tranquillisers, analgesics, narcotics, including allobarbital, diazepam, lorazepam, phenobarbital, temazepam

The EU system

European Union legislation establishing different classes of substances is limited to the EU Regulations that define classes of precursors, stemming from the EU objectives of free movement of goods. These are the Regulation (EC) No 273/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004 on drug precursors, which regulates intra-Community trade, and by the Council Regulation (EC) No 111/2005 of 22 December 2004 laying down rules for the monitoring of trade between the Community and third countries in drug precursors.

While European Union legislation does not establish different classes of narcotic or psychotropic substances, the Council Decision 2005/387/JHA of 10 May 2005 on the information exchange, risk-assessment and control of new psychoactive substances, can provoke a Council Decision requiring countries to put a drug under national controls equivalent to those controls for substances listed in the UN Conventions of 1961 and 1971. Risk assessments under the 2005 Council Decision resulted in pan-European controls for BZP and mephedrone. The mechanism is described in detail by the in the Action on new drugs section.

This replaced the Joint Action 97/396/JHA of 16 June 1997 adopted by the Council on the basis of Article K.3 of the Treaty on European Union, concerning the information exchange, risk assessment and the control of new synthetic drugs, which triggered three Council Decisions requiring countries to put a synthetic drug under national controls equivalent to those for substances in UN71 Schedules I and II. Risk assessments under the Joint Action resulted in pan-European controls for 4-MTA, PMMA, 2C-I, 2C-T-2, 2C-T-7 and TMA-2.

National systems in the EU and Norway

Within their domestic legislations, some Member States distinguish between narcotic and psychotropic substances. Others combine the two in a list that is based on the level of medicinal use or potential harm.

Some Member States also classify narcotic and psychotropic substances in order to determine the prosecution procedure or the (range of) punishment for illegal activities involving those substances. Therefore, in some countries the law states that the sanction for possessing a controlled drug will depend on the type of drug in question, while in other countries the law foresees the same punishment for an activity, no matter which substance is involved.

In Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania and the UK, the penalty for a drugs offence officially varies according to the nature of the substance involved. Thus the law in those 13 countries instructs or requests the judicial authorities to distinguish between drugs when prosecuting. Of these 13 countries, in Malta the penalty is only varied for a charge of drug trafficking, whereas in Belgium, Czech Republic, Ireland and Luxembourg it is only different for the offence of possession of (a small amount of) cannabis for personal use.

In the remaining 14 EU Member States, Croatia and Norway, the law officially does not recognise differences between drugs, and drugs offences may incur the same penalty regardless of the substances involved. However, there is a discrepancy between the formal legal texts and actual practice; the judicial authorities do consider the nature of the substances (as well as the quantity and other determining factors) when sentencing, either using their discretionary power or by applying circulars or directives.

Countries are permitted by the UN Conventions to control other substances also. For a comprehensive list of some 500 substances classified at international and national levels, see the Substance and Classifications Table in the ELDD's Legal Reports section.

Placing a new substance under control may take a varying amount of time depending on the national legal system involved; a decree may be signed by a Minister in a couple of days, whereas changes to a law might require the assent of both houses/chambers of Parliament. Some countries have therefore created a rapid classification system. For the legal systems involved in 15 Member States, see the paper Legal Responses to New Synthetic Drugs in the ELDD’s Legal Reports section.

Legal texts on this subject can be found with the ELDD Legal Text Search using the 'Lists and Classifications' keyword.

Country Main laws and lists of substances (with examples) Classification formally determines penalty? Application of laws
Belgium

There are two lists, in the Royal Decree of 1930 on narcotic substances (including cannabis, heroin, cocaine, codeine, methadone), and the Royal Decree of 1998 on psychotropic substances (including some amphetamines, buprenorphine, hallucinogens, MDMA).

Penalty linked to drug type for cannabis (Art.11, Law of 1921)

The laws allow a simple fine for possession of up to 3g of dried cannabis leaf or resin for personal use, without aggravating circumstances.

Czech Republic

The Law no. 167/1998, On Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, contains 11 Schedules following the UN classification, thus:

1: UN61 Schedule I (cocaine, methadone, morphine);

2: UN61 Schedule II (codeine);

3: UN61 Schedule IV (cannabis, heroin);

4: UN71 Schedule I (LSD, MDMA);

5: UN71 Schedule II (amphetamine, buprenorphine)

6, 7: UN71 Schedules III and IV respectively.

8: UN61 Schedule III - narcotic preparations

Penalty linked to drug type for cannabis (Art. 284(1), Art. 285, Penal Code)

The judiciary will pass a sentence taking the type of drug into consideration.

Denmark

The Executive Order 698 of 1993 on Euphoric Substances contains five lists:
A: substances not allowed in the country (cannabis, heroin, LSD);
B: substances used for medical and scientific purposes with substantial controls (cocaine, MDMA, amphetamines, methadone);
C: substances which have less control as preparations (codeine);
D: substances used for medical and scientific purposes (barbiturates, buprenorphine);
E: substances used for medical and scientific purposes (tranquillisers).

Small quantities:

Maximum and minimum penalties not linked to drug type

Larger quantities:

Maximum and minimum penalties linked to drug type

 

The actual sentencing will depend on how dangerous the drug in question is and on the amount sold or possessed.

Germany

The Narcotics Act (BtMG) contains three lists:

I: narcotic drugs not eligible for trade or prescription (heroin, cannabis, LSD, MDMA);

II: narcotic drugs eligible for trade but not prescribable (delta-9-THC);

III: narcotic drugs eligible for trade and prescribable (cocaine, buprenorphine, morphine, methadone).

Penalty not linked to drug type.

The Narcotics Act allows for refraining from prosecution in cases involving small quantities of (any) drugs for personal use, if there is no public interest in prosecu­tion and only minor guilt (Section 31a BtMG)

In March 1994, the Constitutional Court ruled that penal provisions for the possession of drugs are in line with the Constitution. The Court urged the Lander to assure that the provision of section 31a BtMG be applied with the greatest possible uniformity.

Estonia

The Regulation No 39 of the Minister of Social Affairs of 4 November 1997 has four schedules, plus two for precursors:

I; substances generally prohibited (cannabis, heroin, LSD, MDMA)

II; narcotic medicines which are dispensed only pursuant to a special medical prescription (buprenorphine, cocaine, methadone)

III; narcotic and psychotropic medicines which are dispensed pursuant to a medical prescription (codeine)

IV; psychotropic medicines which are dispensed pursuant to a medical prescription (diazepam)

Penalty not linked to drug type.

 

Greece

The Law 3459/2006 (Codification of the Drug Legislation) contains four lists according to the level of control:

A: handling is the exclusive right of the State (cannabis, heroin, LSD, MDMA);

B: handling is the right of the State Drugs Monopoly (cocaine, methadone, morphine);

C: handling may be by licensed individuals (amphetamines, codeine);

D: distribution may be by pharmacies (barbiturates, tranquillisers, buprenorphine).

Penalty not linked to drug type.

According to Art.29(1) of law 3459/2006, the court considers the category of a substance in determining the sentence for a user.

Spain

The Order of 8th July 1967 and the Royal Decree 2829/1977 classify narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, respectively, in accordance with the UN Conventions.

For personal use, penalty not linked to drug type; for trafficking, the penalties vary according to drug type.

The courts sometimes consider non-punishable even the possession of small amount of drugs not for own use, because it is not harmful for public health.

Ireland

The Misuse of Drugs Regulations1988list five schedules based on the nature of the controls required and the usefulness of the drugs, including:

1: cannabis, LSD, MDMA;

2: cocaine, heroin, methadone, morphine;

3: other psychotropic substances, (phentermine);

4: medicaments (diazepam);

5: specific preparations.

Penalty linked to drug type for cannabis.

 
France

Two decrees of 22 February 1990 classify narcotics and psychotropics respectively into a total of seven lists: four for narcotics (Stupéfiants, including illicit psychotropics), three for medical psychotropics (Psycotropes):

Narcotics:

1. UN61 Schedule I (cannabis, heroin, cocaine, methadone);

2. UN61 Schedule II (codeine);

3. UN71 Schedules I and II - hallucinogens (LSD, MDMA, amphetamines, mescaline, Psilocybin);

4. Substances not under international control such as khat, synthetic cannabinoids, hallucinogenic mushrooms

Psychotropics:

1. UN71 Schedule III (buprenorphine, cathine) and IV (barbital, diazepam)

2. Preparations (not injectable) containing benzphetamine /mefenorex/ phentermine. Preparations (injectable) containing gamma-hydroxybutyric acid.

3. Zaleplone, zopiclone, buthorphanol , all the preparations containing these substances
 

Penalties not linked to drug type.

 
Cyprus

The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law of 1977 lists three classes of drugs according to harm:

Class A: methadone, morphine, MDMA, LSD, heroin;

Class B: cannabis, codeine, some amphetamines;

Class C: amphetamines, sedatives, benzodiazepines, buprenorphine

Penalty linked to drug type.

s.30 of 1977 law was amended in 2003 so that the maximum sentence for a first time offender under the age of 25 is 2 years imprisonment.

New s.30A (2003) Introduced limits on quantities for personal use. Possession of more than that (3gr of cannabis, 10gr of cocaine or opium), creates a presumption that the person intended sale.

Latvia

Cabinet Regulations N 847 adopted 08.11.2005. "Regulations regarding narcotic substances, psychotropic substances and precursors to be controlled in Latvia" establish four Schedules:

Schedule I; Prohibited especially dangerous substances and plants (cannabis, amphetamines, heroin, LSD, MDMA).

Schedule II; Very dangerous substances permitted for medical and scientific use (cocaine, buprenorphine, methadone, morphine)

Schedule III; Dangerous psychotropic substances that can be abused (diazepam, barbital).

Controlled substances are also scheduled in the annex 2 of the Law “On the Procedures for the Coming into Force and Application of the Criminal Law” (contains four Schedules) that define the maximum amount recognised as small and the minimum amount recognised as large.

Penalty not linked to drug type.

The Cabinet Regulations N 847 is directly linked with Law On Narcotics etc, and indirectly with the Criminal Law.

Lithuania

The Law on the Control of Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances (January 8, 1998 No. VIII – 602 as amended) and the Order of the Minister of Healthcare of the Republic of Lithuania regarding the approval of list of narcotic and psychotropic substances (January 6, 2000 No 5 as amended) list drugs in three Schedules:

1. Plants, narcotic and psychotropic substances prohibited for medical use, because they bring about harmful consequences to human health, when they are being misused (amphetamine, cannabis, heroin, LSD, MDMA, psilocybin).

2. Plants, narcotic and psychotropic substances, used for health care purposes, which are very dangerous to human health due to the harmful consequences when these substances are misused (buprenorphine, cocaine, codeine, methadone, morphine).

3. Plants and psychotropic substances used for health care purposes, which are dangerous to human health due to the harmful consequences of the misuse of these substances (diazepam, ketamine, phenazepam).

Penalty not linked to drug type.

 

Luxembourg

Three Grand Ducal Decrees of March 1974 cover narcotic drugs (such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin, methadone), psychotropic substances (LSD, MDMA) and toxic substances (amphetamine) respectively.

Penalty linked to drug type for cannabis.

Separate penalties are given for use or possession of cannabis for personal use.

Hungary

For penal purposes, the Hungarian Penal Code lists substances from four sources:

1. substances in Sch I and II of UN61

2. substances in Sch I and II of UN71

3. psycotropic substances in the Schedules A (scientific use only) and B (medical use) of the Hungarian law 1998/25: medicines used by humans

4. substances in Category 1 of Annex 1 of UN88

For regulatory purposes, the Governmental Order 142/2004 contains 2lists of narcotic drugs following Sch.I and II of UN61 (and a third list about medicines not considered as drugs but their trade is subject toa drug activity permission), and 4 lists of psycotropic substances, following Schs.I-IV of UN71.

Penalty not linked to drug type.

 
Netherlands

The Opium Act contains two lists:

I: unacceptable risk (a, b, c-d):
- Ia: opiates, coca derivatives, cannabis oil;
- Ib: codeine;
- Ic-d: psychotropic substances;

II: others (a, b):
- IIa: tranquillisers;
- IIb: cannabis.

Penalty linked to drug type.

 

Austria

Two 1997 decrees list narcotic and psychotropic substances respectively.

Narcotic drugs decree contains five schedules, containing:

- narcotic substances as listed in UN61;
- psychotropic substances as listed in UN71 Schedules I and II;
- other substances declared as narcotics on national level.

Psychotropic substances decree contains one annex, containing:
- substances listed in UN71 Schedule III (e.g., amobarbital, butalbital) or IV (e.g., allobarbital, barbital);
- other substances declared as psychotropic substances on national level.

Penalty not linked to drug type.

Narcotic Substances Act of 1998 introduced easier measures to waive prosecution for first-time users of cannabis

Poland

The 1997 Act on Counteracting Drug Addiction has three appendices, each subdivided following the pattern used in the UN conventions:

For narcotics; I-N, II-N, III-N, IV-N.

For psychotropics; I-P, II-P, III-P, IV-P.

For precursors; I-R, IIA-R, IIB-R.

Penalty not linked to drug type.

The legislation provides for reduced sentences than the norm if the offence is of lesser gravity.

Portugal

The Decree-Law 15/93 has six lists:
I (a, b, c):
- Ia: opiates, eg heroin, codeine, methadone;
- Ib: coca and derivatives, eg cocaine:
- Ic cannabis and derivatives;

II (a, b, c):
- IIa: hallucinogens (LSD, MDMA);
- IIb: amphetamines;
- IIc: barbiturates, buprenorphine

III: specific preparations;

IV: tranquillisers and analgesics, eg diazepam;

V, VI: precursors.

Penalty linked to drug type.

 

Slovenia

The Production and Trade in Illicit Drugs Act describes three groups, listed in an annex to the Order on Classification of Illicit Drugs:

Group I – non-medical drugs, highly dangerous such as cannabis, heroin, LSD, MDMA

Group II – medical drugs that are highly dangerous (cocaine, codeine, buprenorphine, methadone).

Group III – medical drugs of medium danger (diazepam).

Penalty not linked to drug type.

The judges have the right of discretion to define the exact penalty, including taking expert advice about the risks and danger of some specific drugs.

Slovakia

Three categories based on health impact of the substance:

1 – Cannabis, heroin, LSD, MDMA

2 – Cocaine, amphetamine, methadone

3 – buprenorphine, codeine.

Penalty not linked to drug type.

 

Sweden

The Ordinance on Prohibition of Certain Goods Dangerous to Health (1999:58) lists substances under control but which are not classified as narcotics. It is common that those substances become classified as narcotic drugs after further investigation. For substances already classified as narcotic drugs, the Medical Products Agency Regulation 2000:7 has five lists.

I: drugs without medicinal use (cannabis, heroin, MDMA, LSD);

II: drugs with a limited medicinal use and a high risk of addiction (amphetamines, cocaine, methadone);

III: drugs with medicinal use and a risk of addiction (codeine);

IV: drugs with medicinal use and a low risk of addiction (barbiturates, benzodiazepines, buprenorphine).

V: drugs prohibited in Sweden but not internationally. 

Penalty not linked to drug type.

The judiciary will pass a sentence taking the type of drug into consideration.

United Kingdom

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 determines three classes for misuse, based on the level of harm caused:
Class A: cocaine, methadone, morphine, MDMA, LSD, heroin;
Class B: cannabis, codeine, some amphetamines, mephedrone, synthetic cannabinoids;
Class C: amphetamines, benzodiazepines, buprenorphine, GHB/GBL, BZP, anabolic steroids. 

And the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 denote five schedules for regulatory purposes:
I: including cannabis, hallucinogens;
II: including most opiates, cocaine;
III: including some barbiturates, some stimulants;
IV: benzodiazepines and anabolic steroids;
V: preparations.

Penalty linked to drug type.

 

Croatia

Croatia controls substances in the List of drugs, psychotropic substances and plants from which drugs can be extracted, and substances that can be used for production of drugs. This List is established, and amended, by the Minister of Health. This contains three groups:

- Group 1 narcotic drugs and plants from which drugs can be extracted, subdivided into parts 1-3.

- Group 2 psychotropic substances and plants, subdivided into parts 1-4.

- Group 3 precursors, subdivided into categories 1, 2 and 3.

Penalty not linked to drug type.

 

 
Norway

The Regulation of 1978 gives one alphabetical list in table format, showing the import/export requirements, whether or not the drug is banned, and any special exemptions or provisions.

Penalty not directly linked to drug type; but drug type should be considered when deciding if an offence is aggravated.

 

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Page last updated: Thursday, 26 January 2012