The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was brought in to prevent the non-medical use of certain substances. All illegal drugs are sorted into one of three classes in accordance with the legislation. These classes are known as A, B and C and denote the extent to which they may harm the user or broader society, with the most harmful being placed in the A category.
As well as indicating how potentially harmful a drug is, the class to which it is assigned affects the kinds of penalties given out for offences involving the drug. Class A, for example, carries the most severe penalties, as they are deemed to be the most detrimental to society and individuals. Crimes involving drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act are not just limited to selling, but to possession, giving away or producing.
Class A drugs
Class A drugs include (but are not limited to) heroin (diamorphine), cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, methadone, ecstasy (MDMA), DMT and magic (psilocybin) mushrooms. The list of Class A drugs contains a higher proportion of opioids than the other categories. Class A drugs are also considered to have the greatest detrimental effect on mental and physical health, as well as carrying a higher risk of being linked to other kinds of crime. Many class A drugs such as heroin are also among the most addictive, and it can be very difficult for users to break their dependency on the drug. This, in turn, can have an overwhelmingly detrimental effect on their overall health, careers and ability to sustain relationships and familial ties.
Class B drugs
Class B drugs include (but are not limited to) speed (amphetamines), barbiturates, codeine, cannabis, synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones (including mephedrone). These drugs are not considered to be as harmful as those in Class A, but their dangers are still thought to be considerable. The classing of cannabis, perhaps the most well known and widely used of Class B drugs, has been subject to much controversy over recent decades, having been in both the B and C categories at certain points. It was upgraded to a Class B again in 2009 following concerns about stronger strains of the drug reaching the market.
Class C drugs
Class C drugs include (but are not limited to) benzodiazepines (tranquilisers), GHB/GBL, ketamine, anabolic steroids and benzylpiperazines (BZP). They are considered to be less risky than those of other classes, but they still carry penalties and risks.
It is important to note that there are plenty of legally available drugs that are harmful to health and society. Tobacco and alcohol are perhaps the most prevalent examples, causing thousands of deaths every year in the UK due to their long-term health effects. So-called legal highs, that are developed to imitate the effects of certain illegal substances such as MDMA, are becoming increasingly problematic for lawmakers. Indeed, although they carry similar risks as their illegal counterparts, their molecular structure is slightly different, allowing them to avoid classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Some drugs also have a legitimate medical or research use. Licences need to be obtained from the Home Office in order to use or import these substances.