The law relating to the drug offences most commonly encountered in the English criminal courts is found primarily in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This Act deals with ‘controlled drugs’ and Schedule 2 of the Act creates three ‘classes’ of controlled drug:
Class A includes morphine, heroin (diamorphine), cocaine, methadone and opium;
Class B includes cannabis, amphetamine and ketamine;
Class C includes diazepam, Khat and (since 2023) nitrous oxide.
These are perhaps the most common examples routinely encountered in criminal cases but the classes are extensive and include some rather less well-known substances such as Racemoramide (Class A), Methylnaphthidate (HDMP-28) (Class B) and non-human chorionic gonadotrophin (Class C).
In addition the Psychoactive Substances Act 2015 creates offences in relation to substances which produce “a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person's central nervous system, it affects the person's mental functioning or emotional state.”
In a criminal case the police and Prosecution will have to prove that a given substance is a controlled drug. In simple cannabis cases, an experienced police officer is permitted to identify something as cannabis but in many cases this requires a forensic chemical analysis. A suspect may believe a substance to be one thing only for it to turn out to be something completely different; this may however give rise to a charge of attempting to commit a particular offence.
Synthetic drugs such as ‘spice’ (synthetic cannabinoid – a ‘psychoactive substance’) are covered by the legislation although it sometimes seems that the law struggles to keep up with developments in laboratories and unlicensed establishments.
The legislation is often updated by statutory instrument to cover new materials and the law can change frequently with little or no publicity. It will be no defence to say that a person did not know that a particular substance was banned.
Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.