United Kingdom Country Drug Report 2019

Drug laws and drug law offences

National drug laws

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, with amendments, is the main law regulating drug control in the United Kingdom. It divides controlled substances into three classes (A, B and C), which provide a basis for attributing penalties for offences. Maximum penalties vary 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, with mitigating and aggravating factors determining which type of court is the most appropriate for a given case. Detailed guidance for sentencing in each case is published by the Sentencing Council. A distinction is made between possession of controlled drugs and possession with intent to supply; the latter effectively refers to drug trafficking offences.

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 6 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine; on indictment, penalties may reach 7 years’ imprisonment. Possession of Class B drugs, such as cannabis and amphetamines, incurs a penalty of up to 3 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine at a magistrates’ court; on indictment, the penalty is up to 5 years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. Possession of most Class C drugs, such as benzodiazepines, attracts a penalty of up to 3 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine by a magistrate, or up to 2 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 some powers of discretion.

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. For trafficking in Class A drugs, the maximum penalty on indictment is ‘life’ imprisonment (which is 25 years in the United Kingdom), while trafficking in Class B or Class C drugs can incur a penalty of up to 14 years in prison. Under Section 110 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, a minimum sentence of 7 years was introduced for a third conviction for trafficking in Class A drugs.

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 (with some exemptions) if it is known that it is to be used for its psychoactive effects. Supply offences are aggravated by proximity to a 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 7 years’ imprisonment on indictment or 1 year’s imprisonment on summary conviction.


Drug law offences

Drug law offence (DLO) data are the foundation for monitoring drug-related crime and are also a measure of law enforcement activity and drug market dynamics; they may be used to inform policies on the implementation of drug laws and to improve strategies.

The number of arrests for drug law offences has decreased in recent years. In 2015/16, approximately 107 000 court convictions and police 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), 55 % were cannabis related, 23 % were cocaine related (excluding crack cocaine) and 12 % were heroin related.


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Methodological note: Analysis of trends is based only on those countries providing sufficient data to describe changes over the period specified. The reader should also be aware that monitoring patterns and trends in a hidden and stigmatised behaviour like drug use is both practically and methodologically challenging. For this reason, multiple sources of data are used for the purposes of analysis in this report. Caution is therefore required in interpretation, in particular when countries are compared on any single measure. Detailed information on methodology and caveats and comments on the limitations in the information set available can be found in the EMCDDA Statistical Bulletin.