Drugs policy

Drugs considered addictive or dangerous in the United Kingdom are called "controlled substances" and regulated by law. Here you will find information on UK drugs policy as well as EU and international policy as it relates to UK law.

A brief history of modern UK drugs policy


Taken from the British Medical Association Board of Science, Drugs of dependence: the role of medical professionals, published January 2013.

  • The first Dangerous Drugs Act passed in 1920, and a further Act in 1923, passed to conform to the 1912 International Opium Convention at The Hague to which Britain was a signatory, imposed stricter controls on doctors and pharmacists in relation to dangerous drugs, in a climate with a penal emphasis on policy.
  • It was not clear from these Acts or the Convention whether prescribing drugs to addicts constituted legal medical work. The Rolleston Report in 1926 affirmed the right of doctors to prescribe controlled drugs to addicts in defined circumstances and set the scene for a balanced medical approach within a penal framework.
  • The second Geneva Convention in 1925 brought cannabis under international control, and restrictions were implemented in the 1928 Dangerous Drugs Act.
  • As a result of increasing use of heroin, the 1967 Dangerous Drugs Act restricted prescribing of heroin to doctors licensed by the Home Office, and set up new drug treatment centres within the NHS hospital system. A notification system for addiction was also introduced.
  • Introduction of other drugs to the illicit market, such as amphetamines and LSD, led to the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1967, and recommendations that penalties for possession of cannabis should be reduced, with no custodial sentencing for casual use, were implemented.

In 1961 the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs introduced four schedules of controlled drugs and was followed in the UK by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, with drugs categorised in classes according to perceived harm and therapeutic value. This Act also set up the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, to keep the drug situation under review and advise the Government.

  • With increasing illicit drug use, Government strategies in the 1980s began to focus on the social and economic problems of drug users, in addition to their medical problems, and GPs became involved with the more general healthcare needs of drug users, leaving specialists to deal with more difficult drug users.
  • The 1995 Drug Strategy moved away from this ‘harm minimisation’ approach to one encouraging users to enter treatment, with the aim of moving users towards abstinence and achievement of a drug-free state and of reducing criminal behaviour.
  • Later strategies (2002, 2004, 2008) continued to emphasise the need to move drug users into treatment and focused on the links between drugs and crime; they also aimed to move drug treatment away from the NHS into the community and voluntary sector.
  • The 2008 Drug Strategy maintained a focus on drugs and crime but placed greater emphasis on the impact of problematic drug use on children and families of users.
  • With the 2010 Drug Strategy, policy continues to move away from drug-crime links and towards a focus on wider social and economic factors that drive problematic drug use. The emphasis is on people in drug treatment achieving recovery, rather than aiming to simply engage and retain them in treatment.
  • The international policy framework means that all possession or marketing of illicit drugs remains a criminal activity.

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

New Psychoactive Substances (NPS or so-called ‘legal highs’) are a group of drugs designed to bypass the legislative control of illegal drugs. They attempt to imitate the effects of illegal substances – stimulants, cannabis, depressants or hallucinogens – by either mimicking the pharmacological effects of a specific drug, or by subtly modifying the molecular structure of existing illegal drugs.

Until now, the Home Secretary has had the power to invoke a temporary class drug order (an instant ban) lasting up to 12 months in the case of new drugs causing concern. This ‘substance by substance’ approach has seen more than 500 new ‘legal highs’ – many of them synthetic chemical compounds designed to mimic the effects of traditional illicit drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy – banned in Britain.

As a result, the Home Office introduced a new bill in May 2015, which would ban trade in “any substance* intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.” The 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act received Royal Assent on 28 January 2016 and came into force on 26 May 2016. The Bill bans the supply, production, distribution and sale of new psychoactive substances in a way that no longer requires each new substance to be met with a temporary class drug order.

*Exceptions include: legitimate substances (food, alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine and medical products) and controlled drugs, which will continue to be regulated by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as well as exempted persons, such as medical professionals who may have legitimate cause for using NPS as part of their work.

Read the updated ADEPIS briefing paper on NPS.

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