Classification of controlled drugs – topic overview

Classification of controlled drugs

Introduction

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

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

EU level

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, amended by Regulation (EU) No 1258/2013, 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, amended by Regulation (EU) No 1259/2013.

While European Union legislation does not establish different classes of narcotic or psychotropic substances, the EU has a pan-European system to rapidly detect, assess and respond to health and social threats caused by NPS, under the procedures set out in the Regulation (EU) 2017/2101; the mechanism (and its predecessors) is described in detail in the Early Warning System section. Following early warning and risk assessment, the Commission can make a proposal for subjecting the substance to control measures, and with no objections, national authorities will have 6 months to place the substance under control on their territory once the decision enters into force. Since EU action on new drugs started in 1997, over 25 substances have been placed under pan-European control in this way.

National level

National systems in the EU and Norway

Details of each country's exact definition can be found in Penalties at a glance, and in answers to its question “Penalty varies by drug?”.

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