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How are Drugs Classified?

Last updated on 4th May 2023

The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) latest published statistics show that, overall, drug use continues to remain stable in England and Wales, with around 1 in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years having taken a drug in 2020; that is 9.4% of the adult population or 3.2 million individuals. However, there were differences between age groups as drug use was much more common among younger adults, although the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds taking drugs was similar to the previous year. Around one in five adults aged 16 to 24 years had taken a drug in 2020; that is 21% or approximately 1.3 million people. This was similar to figures for the previous year (2019), 20.3%.

Figures for the latest year (2020), show that 3.4% of adults aged 16 to 59 years had reported taking any Class A drug in the last year; this equates to around 1.1 million individuals. For adults aged 16 to 24 years, the proportion who had reported Class A drug use was much higher at 7.4% of that age group, approximately 467,000 people.

In 2020, 2.1% of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 4.3% of adults aged 16 to 24 years were classed as “frequent” drug users; that is, they had taken a drug more than once a month in the last year.

Data recorded by the police showed that drug offences were 30% higher in April to June 2020 compared with April to June 2019. This was largely driven by rises in offences involving the possession of drugs, and reflected proactive police activity in pursuing crime during lockdown restrictions, rather than genuine changes in drug use.

How are Drugs Classified?

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 classifies controlled drugs into three categories – Classes A, B and C – according to the harm that they cause, with Class A drugs considered to be the most harmful because of the impact they have on society and not necessarily on the individual. It is worth remembering that different drugs affect people in different ways. Class A drugs are considered the most dangerous substances and carry the heaviest criminal penalties. Drugs in all classes, not just those in Class A, are dangerous.

To classify drugs, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) considers scientific evidence on medical and social harms and risks. In recent years the ACMD has used a risk assessment matrix as a partially objective scoring system to assist with evaluating the harms associated with different drugs in order to classify them, as outlined below:

Category Parameter
Physical Harms – Acute
– Chronic
– Physical harms
– Parenteral (e.g. intravenous)
Dependence – Intensity of pleasure
– Psychological dependence
– Physical dependence
Social Harms – Intoxication
– Other social harms
– Healthcare costs

However, this matrix and the accompanying scoring system are only used as a guide for the decision-making process. Following risk assessment by the ACMD, the UK Parliament then determines the relevant class for drugs based on the recommendations of the ACMD.

Classifying Drugs

What are Classified Drugs?

The three categories of drugs are Class A, Class B and Class C. Drugs included in the Crime Survey for England and Wales trend measures, and their classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as at November 2020 are:

Class A drugs

  • Powder cocaine.
  • Crack cocaine.
  • Ecstasy.
  • LSD.
  • Magic mushrooms.
  • Heroin.
  • Methadone.
  • Methamphetamine.

Class B drugs

  • Amphetamines.
  • Cannabis (since January 2009; because of reclassification).
  • Mephedrone (since April 2010).
  • Ketamine (since June 2014).
  • Tranquillisers (classified as Class B/C, although not all tranquilisers are classed as Class B/C).

Class C drugs

  • Anabolic steroids (not all anabolic steroids are classed as Class C).
  • GHB.

Temporary Class Drug Orders (TCDO) are currently in place for psychoactive substances, sometimes mislabelled as legal highs. The chemical composition of these new substances can change quickly, so a temporary banning order allows a substance to be banned until analysis can be carried out to assess the potential risks to human health.

A drug granted this status is banned for 12 months and this gives the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs the necessary time to provide full, independent and expert advice before a decision on permanent control or other necessary measures is made. After 12 months the TCDO will expire unless it is brought under permanent control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It should be noted that, so far, no substance subject to a TCDO has had its status expired or discharged and the TCDO has either been extended or the drug has been controlled as a Class A, B or C substance.

Why are Drugs Classified?

The Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971 established the system by which illicit drugs or controlled substances are classified. Its fundamental purpose is to provide a regulatory framework which controls the availability of, and access to, certain substances. Within this Act, criminal penalties are set with reference to the risk or to the harm caused by a drug and the type of illegal activity undertaken, for example, possession or supply / trafficking.

A drug or other substance is tightly controlled by the government because it may be abused or cause addiction. Controlled substances include opioids, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens and anabolic steroids. Controlled substances with known medical use, such as morphine, Valium and Ritalin, are available only on prescription from a medical professional. Other controlled substances, such as heroin and LSD, have no known medical use and are illegal in the UK.

Final thoughts

Anyone who is concerned about drugs, whether this is your own use of substances or you feel under pressure to take drugs, or if you are worried about a friend or family member taking drugs, there is confidential help and advice available from FRANK 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, call 0300 123 6600.

If you or someone else needs urgent help after taking drugs, call 999 for an ambulance. Tell the crew everything you know including the type of drug taken, if you know it. It could save their life.

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About the author

Megan Huziej

Megan Huziej

Megan has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she is in charge of content production, as well as planning, managing and delegating tasks. Megan works closely with our writers, voice artists, companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. She gained her Business Administration Level 3 qualification over the duration of being at CPD Online College as well. Outside of work Megan loves to venture to different places and eateries as well as spending quality time with friends and family.

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