4.4.1 The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom #

The main statutes regulating the availability, possession and supply of drugs in the UK are the Misuse of Drugs Act, the Medicines Act, and the Psychoactive Substances Act. The latter of these, commonly abbreviated to PSA, is by far the most invasive. Indeed, it completely usurped British legal tradition, which for centuries operated on the basis that citizens could do anything as long as it wasn’t illegal. This was replaced by a statute (the PSA) which decreed that everything was illegal unless specifically exempted. The UK media cheered from the sidelines.


This hugely intrusive law came into force on 26th May 2016. Quoting the government’s own web site, it made it an offence to:

produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, possess on custodial premises, import or export psychoactive substances; that is, any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.”

This unprecedented overreach applies even to psychoactive substances that have not been invented or discovered yet.

Note that possession itself, unless on custodial premises, is not covered. This means that all substances previously legal to possess, including legal highs, remained legal to possess, unless intended for supply to a third party. Note also that, regarding procurement, it became an offence to import, embracing Internet purchases as well as more traditional routes.

It is worth re-emphasizing that the PSA did not replace or repeal previous legislation. Drugs which were specifically covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act, prior to 26th May 2016, remained illegal to both possess and supply.


Of the other two statutes, the Misuse of Drugs Act is the most relevant and most frequently exercised.

Quoting homeoffice.gov.uk, offences defined by this include:

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) and allowing premises you occupy or manage to be used unlawfully for the purpose of producing or supplying controlled drugs”.

The number of drugs controlled (those made illegal) under this legislation has grown significantly year on year. They are individually categorized under three distinct classes, A, B and C, each of which carries a different range of sanctions.

Class A Up to 7 years + fine Up to life + fine
Class B Up to 5 years + fine Up to 14 years + fine
Class C Up to 2 years + fine Up to 14 years + fine

Regarding which drug has been placed into which class, the specifics are listed on the following pages of the legislation.gov.uk website:

An alphabetically based list, drug by drug, is provided on the following web page:

Note that the disclaimers quoted below apply to all these lists (and to others cited elsewhere on the same websites):

The following is a list of the most commonly encountered drugs currently controlled under the misuse of drugs legislation”.

Although it is extensive, the list is not exhaustive and, in the event of a substance not being listed below, reference should also be made to the published Act and Regulations at legislation.gov.uk”.


If you are contemplating the use of illegal drugs, in other words, if you are thinking of breaking the law, your calculation should include consideration of the potential sentence, should you be arrested, charged and convicted.

Clearly, this will vary, as it is at least partly dependent upon your individual circumstances, and the attitude and disposition of the particular judge or magistrate(s). However, in England and Wales the Sentencing Council issues guidelines for the sentencing of offenders aged 18 and older.

Further to this, the Coroners and Justice Act states that:

Every court –
(a) must, in sentencing an offender, follow any sentencing guideline which is relevant to the offender’s case, and
(b) must, in exercising any other function relating to the sentencing of offenders, follow any sentencing guidelines which are relevant to the exercise of the function,
unless the court is satisfied that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so.

Whilst these are guidelines, they do provide broad parameters which can give an indication of the likely consequences of your own course of action, should this scenario unfold.

They cover factors such as aggravating and mitigating circumstances, category of harm (e.g. quantity of the drug in question), and the nature of your specific role.

As this is a publication, it is subject to change. The current version can be downloaded or viewed in its entirety from the following web page:

It is strongly recommended that you read this document carefully, prior to subjecting yourself to the possibility of its provisions.


If you fall foul of the law in any way, the following basic information may be of use. Note, however, that this does not constitute legal advice, which should be sought from a qualified practitioner.


If you are stopped on the street by a plain clothed officer, you should insist on seeing his or her warrant card. If the reason has not been volunteered, you should ask why you have been stopped.

If you are searched, you should ask for a record of the search. Do not resist, even if the search is unlawful (address this later). Stay as calm as possible throughout.

If the police come to your home, again stay calm, and ask how you can help. If they wish to search your premises, note that they can do so, without a warrant, if they arrest you, or in any of a pre-defined set of circumstances. The latter are described by Citizens Advice as follows:

Situations in which the police can enter premises without a warrant include when they want to:

  • deal with a breach of the peace or prevent it
  • enforce an arrest warrant
  • arrest a person in connection with certain offences
  • recapture someone who has escaped from custody


You have heard it a thousand times on television, but here is the caution which should accompany any arrest relating to drugs:

You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

This more or less means what it states. If the first time you mention your defence is actually in court, the magistrate or judge may well consider that you have invented the defence in the interim (and the judge may advise the jury accordingly). At the same time, however, it does not mean that you are compelled to say anything which may incriminate yourself. You are not. Indeed, the sensible course is to consult a solicitor in private prior to discussing the case with the police.

In the early stages it can be of the utmost importance that you think very carefully before you speak, even if you are frightened or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Try not to panic, and try to establish, and mentally note, whatever information you can (e.g. the specific reason you have been arrested). Importantly, you should exercise your right to see a solicitor. This is free of charge. Your solicitor should be present when you are questioned or interviewed. Again, this is something you should insist on.

You also have the right to have a person of your choice notified of your arrest. Note that this is not the same as having the right to make a phone call yourself (as in the United States and depicted in countless American movies).

If you are alone in a cell try to stay as calm as possible. You have not been forgotten and cannot be held indefinitely. Note that you do have the right to speak to the custody officer, who is responsible for your welfare.


The following is taken directly from Gov.uk, and describes your rights if you are taken into police custody:

The custody officer at the police station must explain your rights. You have the right to:

  • get free legal advice
  • tell someone where you are
  • have medical help if you’re feeling ill
  • see the rules the police must follow (‘Codes of Practice’)
  • see a written notice telling you about your rights, eg regular breaks for food and to use the toilet (you can ask for a notice in your language) or an interpreter to explain the notice
  • You’ll be searched and your possessions will be kept by the police custody officer while you’re in the cell.


Release offers free non-judgmental specialist advice and information on issues related to drug use and to drug laws.

You can contact them directly via the following dedicated help line: 0845 4500 215

This is available from 11am to 1pm, and from 2pm to 4pm, Monday to Friday. Other methods of contact are:

Email: ask@release.org.uk

Address: 124-128 City Road, London, EC1V 2NJ

Tel: 020 7324 2989
Fax: 020 7324 2977

The Release website: www.release.org.uk

Bust card: www.release.org.uk/publications/bust-card

Finally, Citizens Advice provides general information with respect to the police on the following web page: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-rights/legal-system/police/police-powers/