Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

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Misuse of Drugs Act 1971[1]
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to make new provision with respect to dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs and related matters, and for purposes connected therewith.
Citation1971 c. 38
Introduced byReginald Maudling
Territorial extent England and Wales; Scotland; Northern Ireland
Royal assent27 May 1971
Status: Amended
Text of statute as originally enacted
Revised text of statute as amended

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971[1] (c. 38) is an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It represents action in line with treaty commitments under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,[2] the Convention on Psychotropic Substances,[3] and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.[4]

Offences under the act include:[5]

  • Possession of a controlled drug unlawfully
  • Possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply it
  • Supplying or offering to supply a controlled drug (even where no charge is made for the drug)
  • Allowing premises you occupy or manage to be used unlawfully for the purpose of producing or supplying controlled drugs

It is often presented[by whom?] as little more than a list of prohibited drugs and of penalties linked to their possession and supply. In practice, however, the act establishes the Home Secretary as a key player in a drug licensing system. Therefore, for example, various opiates are available legally as prescription-only medicines, and cannabis (hemp)[6] may be grown under licence for 'industrial purposes'. The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001,[7] created under the 1971 Act, are about licensing of production, possession and supply of substances classified under the act.

The act creates three classes of controlled substances, A, B, and C, and ranges of penalties for illegal or unlicensed possession and possession with intent to supply are graded differently within each class. The lists of substances within each class can be amended by Order in Council, so the Home Secretary can list new drugs and upgrade, downgrade or delist previously controlled drugs with less of the bureaucracy and delay associated with passing an act through both Houses of Parliament.

Critics of the Act such as David Nutt say that its classification is not based on how harmful or addictive the substances are, and that it is unscientific to omit substances like tobacco and alcohol.


Section 37 – Interpretation[edit]

Section 37(5) became spent on the repeal of sections 8 to 10 of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933.[8] It was repealed by Group 7 of Part 17 of Schedule 1 to the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 2004.

List of controlled drugs[edit]

The Act sets out four separate categories: Class A, Class B, Class C and temporary class drugs. Substances may be removed and added to different parts of the schedule by statutory instrument, provided a report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been commissioned and has reached a conclusion, although the Secretary of State is not bound by the council's findings.


The penalties for drug offences depend on the class of drug involved. These penalties are enforced against those who do not have a valid prescription or licence to possess the drug in question. Thus, it is not illegal for someone to possess heroin, a Class A drug, so long as it was administered to them legally (by prescription).

Class A drugs attract the highest penalty, and imprisonment is both "proper and expedient".[9] The maximum penalties possible are as follows:[10]

Offence Court Class A Class B/Temporary class Class C
Possession Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2500 fine 3 months / £500 fine
Crown 7 years / unlimited fine 5 years / unlimited fine 2 years / unlimited fine
Supply and possession
with intent to supply
Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2000 fine
Crown Life[11] / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine

International cooperation[edit]

The act makes it a crime to assist in, incite, or induce, the commission of an offence, outside the UK, against another nation's corresponding law on drugs. A corresponding law is defined as another country's law "providing for the control and regulation in that country of the production, supply, use, export and import of drugs and other substances in accordance with the provisions of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs" or another drug control treaty to which the UK and the other country are parties. An example might be lending money to a United States drug dealer for the purpose of violating that country's Controlled Substances Act.


The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 controlled amphetamines in the United Kingdom in advance of international agreements and was later used to control LSD.

Before 1971, the UK had a relatively liberal drugs policy and it was not until United Nations influence had been brought to bear that controlling incidental drug activities was employed to effectively criminalise drugs use. It is noted that bar the smoking of opium and cannabis; Section 8, part d, under the 1971 Act was not an offence (relating to the prosecution of the owner of a premises/building inside of which controlled drugs were being used). Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971[12] was amended by Regulation 13 of Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1985[13] and Section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001.[14] These amendments were however repealed in 2005 by Schedule 1 (part 6) of the Drugs Act 2005,.[15][16]

The Current Section 8 covers: people knowingly allowing premises they own, manage, or have responsibility for, to be used by any other person for:

Criticism and controversy[edit]

Notable criticism of the act includes:

  • Drug classification: making a hash of it?, Fifth Report of Session 2005–06, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which said that the present system of drug classification is based on historical assumptions, not scientific assessment.[18]
  • Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse, David Nutt, Leslie A. King, William Saulsbury, Colin Blakemore, The Lancet, 24 March 2007, said the act is "not fit for purpose" and "the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the Misuse of Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary."[19][20]

The Transform Drug Policy Foundation offers rational criticism of the harms caused by the Government's current prohibitionist drug policy.[21] The Drug Equality Alliance (DEA) has launched legal actions against the UK Government's partial and unequal administration of the Act's discretionary powers, making particular reference to the arbitrary exclusion of alcohol and tobacco on the subjective grounds of historical and cultural precedents contrary to the Act's policy and objects.[22]

Classification of cannabis has become especially controversial. In 2004, cannabis[6] was reclassified from class B to class C,[23] in accordance with advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). In 2009, it was returned to class B,[24] against ACMD advice.

In February 2009 the UK government was accused by its most senior expert drugs adviser Professor David Nutt of making a political decisions with regard to drug classification in rejecting the scientific advice to downgrade ecstasy from a class A drug. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) report on ecstasy, based on a 12-month study of 4,000 academic papers, concluded that it is nowhere near as dangerous as other class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, and should be downgraded to class B. The advice was not followed.[25] Jacqui Smith, then Home Secretary, was also widely criticised by the scientific community for bullying Professor David Nutt into apologising for his comments that, in the course of a normal year, more people died from falling off horses than died from taking ecstasy.[26] Professor Nutt was later sacked by Alan Johnson (Jacqui Smith's successor as Home Secretary); Johnson saying "It is important that the government's messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them. I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD."[27][28]

In May 2011, a report named Taking Drugs Seriously was released by Demos. It discusses several issues with the current system, since its enactment in 1971. It states that the constant presence of new drugs will make it difficult for the government to keep up with the latest situation - over 600 drugs are now classified under the act. Comparison levels of harm previously demonstrated by David Nutt show that alcohol and tobacco were among the most lethal, while some class A drugs, such as MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms, were among the least harmful.[29]

Use of controlled substances for research[edit]

A common misunderstanding amongst researchers is that most national laws (including the Misuse for Drugs Act) allows the use of small amounts of a controlled substance for non-clinical / non-in vivo research without licences. A typical use case might be having a few milligrams or microlitres of a controlled substance within larger chemical collections (often tens of thousands of chemicals) for in vitro screening. Researchers often believe that there is some form of "research exemption" for such small amounts. This incorrect view may be further re-enforced by R&D chemical suppliers often stating and asking scientists to confirm that anything bought is for research use only.

A further misconception is that the Misuse of Drugs Act simply lists a few hundred substances (e.g. MDMA, Fentanyl, Amphetamine, etc.) and compliance can be achieved via checking a CAS number, chemical name or similar identifier. However, the reality is that in most cases all ethers, esters, salts and stereo isomers are also controlled and it is impossible to simply list all of these. The act contains several "generic statements" or "chemical space" laws, which aim to control all chemicals similar to the "named" substance, these provide detailed descriptions similar to Markushes, a good example of a few of these are found in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (amendment) order 2013.[30]

Due to this complexity in legislation the identification of controlled chemicals in research is often carried out computationally, either by in house systems maintained a company's sample logistics department or by the use commercial software solutions.[31] Automated systems are often required as many research operations can often have chemical collections running into 10Ks of molecules at the 1–5 mg scale, which are likely to include controlled substances, especially within medicinal chemistry research, even if the core research of the company is not narcotic or psychotropic drugs.[32] These may not have been controlled when created, but they have subsequently been declared controlled, or fall within chemical space close to known controlled substances.

There are no specific research exemptions in the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, the associated Misuse of Drug Regulations 2001[33] does exempt products containing less than 1 mg of a controlled substance (1 μg for lysergide and derivatives) so long as a number of requirements are met, including that it cannot be recovered by readily applicable means, does not pose a risk to human health and is not meant for administration to a human or animal.

Although this does at first seem to allow research use, in most circumstances the sample, by definition, is "recoverable" - in order to prepare it for use the sample is "recovered" into an assay buffer or solvent such as DMSO or water. In 2017 the Home Office also confirmed that the 1 mg limit applies to the total of all preparations across the entire container in the case of sample microtitre plates.[34] Given this, most companies and researchers choose not to rely on this exemption.

However according to Home Office licensing, "University research departments generally do not require licences to possess and supply drugs in schedules 2, 3, 4 part I, 4 part II and schedule 5, but they do require licences to produce any of those drugs and to produce, possess and/or supply drugs in schedule 1".[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Plants containing mescaline not illegal, only an extract of the substance.


  1. ^ a b The citation of this act by this short title is authorised by section 40(1) of this act.
  2. ^ "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website, accessed 6 February 2009". Unodc.org. 24 October 2007. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  3. ^ "Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website, accessed 6 February 2009". Unodc.org. 24 October 2007. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  4. ^ "Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website, accessed 6 February 2009". Unodc.org. 24 October 2007. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  5. ^ "Misuse of Drugs Act, Home Office representation of the act, Home Office website, accessed 27 January 2009". Drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 4 May 2010. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  6. ^ a b All varieties of cannabis, including those grown as hemp, are controlled under the act, not just drug varieties.
  7. ^ Statutory Instrument 2001 No. 3998 The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001
  8. ^ Archbold Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice. 1999. Paragraph 26-128 at page 2209.
  9. ^ R v Aramah (1982) 4 Cr App R (S) 407, per Lord Lane CJ
  10. ^ Class A, B and C drugs, Home Office website, accessed 27 January 2009 Archived 4 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Increased from 14 years to life in 1985: Controlled Drugs (Penalties) Act 1985.
  12. ^ "Misuse of Drugs Act 1971". Opsi.gov.uk. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  13. ^ http://www.drugshelp.info/downloads/modr1985.pdf The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1985
  14. ^ "The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001". Opsi.gov.uk. 16 July 2010. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  15. ^ "Drugs Act 2005". Opsi.gov.uk. 16 July 2010. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  16. ^ "Tables of legislative effects - Statute Law Database". Statutelaw.gov.uk. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  17. ^ DrugScope. "RESOURCES | What are the UK drug laws?". DrugScope. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  18. ^ "Microsoft Word - HC1031.doc" (PDF). Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  19. ^ Nutt, D.; King, L. A.; Saulsbury, W.; Blakemore, C. (2007). "Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse". The Lancet. 369 (9566): 1047–1053. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60464-4. PMID 17382831. S2CID 5903121.
  20. ^ "Scientists want new drug rankings, BBC News website, 23 March 2007, accessed 27 January 2009". BBC News. 23 March 2007. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  21. ^ "Transform Drug Policy Foundation website, accessed 30 January 2009". Tdpf.org.uk. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  22. ^ "Drug Equality Alliance - Mission". Drug Equality Alliance. Retrieved 28 August 2009.
  23. ^ "The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003 (No. 3201), OPSI website, accessed 27 January 2009". Statutelaw.gov.uk. 29 January 2004. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  24. ^ "The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2008 (No. 3130), OPSI website, accessed 27 January 2009". Statutelaw.gov.uk. 10 December 2008. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  25. ^ Travis, Alan (February 2009). "Government criticised over refusal to downgrade ecstasy". The Guardian.
  26. ^ Kmietowicz Z (2009). "Home secretary accused of bullying drugs adviser over comments about ecstasy". BMJ. 338: b612. doi:10.1136/bmj.b612. PMID 19218327. S2CID 28874033.
  27. ^ Mark Easton (30 October 2009). "Nutt gets the sack". BBC News. Retrieved 18 December 2011.
  28. ^ Mark Tran (30 October 2009). "Government drug adviser David Nutt sacked". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 December 2011.
  29. ^ Jonathan Birdwell; Jake Chapman; Nicola Singleton (5 March 2011). taking drugs seriously: A Demos and UK Drug Policy Commission report on legal highs (PDF). Demos. ISBN 978-1-906693-68-8. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
  30. ^ "The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2013". www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  31. ^ "Scitegrity | Controlled Substances Squared". www.scitegrity.com. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  32. ^ "Controlled Substances found in research and chemical suppliers collections". www.scitegrity.com.
  33. ^ "The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001". www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  34. ^ "Research Exemptions | Controlled Substances | In Vitro". blog.scitegrity.com. Retrieved 5 January 2023.
  35. ^ "Controlled drugs: licences, fees and returns". GOV.UK. Retrieved 27 February 2019.

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