Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

2  Background

ABC classification system

5. The ABC classification system "was designed to make it possible to control particular drugs according to their comparative harmfulness either to individuals or to society at large when they were misused".[6] The ABC system has its origins in the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971, which introduced the concept of 'controlled drugs' and (as amended) constitutes the main piece of legislation regulating the availability and use of these drugs. The purpose of the Act was to provide a coherent framework for drug regulation which, until then, had been covered by the Drugs (Regulation of Misuse) Act 1964 and the Dangerous Drugs Acts of 1965 and 1967.

6. The United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 and its attempts to establish a Convention on Psychotropic Substances (eventually ratified in 1971) formed an important backdrop to the UK's efforts to rationalise its legislation in this area. James Callaghan, the then Home Secretary, told Parliament in 1970 that in developing the ABC classification system the Government had used the UN Single Convention and guidance provided by the World Health Organisation to place drugs "in the order in which we think they should be classified of harmfulness and danger".[7] Even at that early stage, the Government said that drugs would be classified "according to the accepted dangers and harmfulness in light of current knowledge", with provision "for changes to be made in […] the light of scientific knowledge".[8]

7. The Misuse of Drugs Act did not specify why particular drugs were placed in Class A, B or C but did create an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to keep the classification of drugs under review. The role and workings of the ACMD are discussed in detail in Chapter 3. The classifications of a selection of controlled drugs are listed in Table 1.[9] Since the introduction of the Act, the Government has made a number of changes to the Class of drugs, the most prominent of which was the decision in 2002 to move cannabis from Class B to Class C. Various drugs which were not originally regulated under the Act have also become classified—ketamine, gamma-hydroxy butyrate (GHB) and steroids have all been placed in Class C. Chapter 4 discusses the role played by scientific advice and evidence in determining the Class of cannabis, amphetamines—including ecstasy and methylamphetamine—and magic mushrooms. Table 1: Classification of illegal drugs
Classification Drugs Maximum penalties
Class A Heroin, LSD, ecstasy, amphetamines (prepared for injection), cocaine and crack cocaine, magic mushrooms. For possession: 7 years' imprisonment and/or fine.

For supply: life imprisonment and/or fine.

Class B Amphetamines, methylamphetamine, barbiturates, codeine. For possession: 5 years' imprisonment and/or fine.

For supply: 14 years' imprisonment and/or a fine.

Class C Cannabis, temazepam, anabolic steroids, valium, ketamine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), gamma-hydroxy butyrate (GHB). For possession: 2 years' imprisonment and/or fine.

For supply: 14 years' imprisonment and/or fine.

8. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is an offence to possess a controlled drug unlawfully; to possess with intent to supply; to supply or offer to supply a controlled drug (even where no charge is made); to allow premises to be used for the purpose of drug taking; and to traffic in drugs.[10] While the Act specifies the penalties attracted by offences associated with drugs of different categories, the police and courts retain a degree of discretion in policing and sentencing. The RAND report on the evidence base for the classification system for illegal drugs (see paragraph 10) points out that "in 2004 under 10,000 of the 70,000 drug offences coming before the courts attracted any custodial sentence" and that "In the first three years' operation of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which introduced minimum sentences for those caught dealing in Class A drugs for the third time, only three people were actually sentenced in accordance with the powers of the act".[11] We return to the relationship between the classification system and penalties for possession and supply of controlled drugs in Chapter 7.

Misuse of Drugs Regulations

9. The Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 are concerned with the therapeutic use of drugs. They define the classes of persons who are authorised to supply and possess controlled drugs while acting in their professional capacities and lay down conditions under which these activities must be carried out. Under the Regulations, drugs are categorised in five schedules which govern import, export, production, supply, possession, prescribing and record keeping. According to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs:

Commissioned research

10. As part of this inquiry, the Committee commissioned RAND Europe, a not-for-profit policy research consultancy, to provide an independent review of the evidence base for developing policy on the classification of illegal drugs. The research looked at the evidence for physical and social harm associated with specific drugs, evidence of the impact of classification and international differences in the interpretation of the existing evidence. The research looked at drugs in all three classifications. For Class A it examined cocaine, magic mushrooms and ecstasy. In Class B it covered amphetamines. In Class C it investigated the most commonly used illegal drug, cannabis, which was reclassified in 2002 and considered again by the Home Secretary in January 2006. The research also looked at the classification systems used in three other countries to provide evidence for comparative purposes. The report, referred to here as the 'RAND report', was published on 1 March 2006 and an addendum issued shortly thereafter.[13]

11. We commissioned this research with the objective of obtaining an impartial assessment of the relationship between UK policy on drug classification and the international, publicly-available evidence base to underpin it. In so doing, we sought to complement our own evidence-gathering processes undertaken during the inquiry, in which we have heard directly from the key players involved in the provision of advice and development of policy, as well as looking in greater detail at the workings of the Government's major source of scientific advice in this area, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

International comparisons

12. We asked RAND to undertake a comparison of the UK, US, Dutch and Swedish approaches to drug legislation as part of its research. These countries were selected in order to provide a range of different policy contexts, with the Netherlands having adopted an approach to drugs legislation which is generally considered to be 'liberal' and Sweden following a comparatively conservative system. The US is often considered to share similarities in politics and values with the UK and was one of the countries examined by the influential Runciman inquiry into drugs and the law (see paragraph 18). We also visited the US to examine its approach to policy making in respect of drugs in greater depth.


13. The focus of drug legislation in the US is on reducing the number of drug misusers in the country. The Controlled Substances Act, title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (1970), divides drugs into five schedules, based on their potential for abuse, potential for creating dependence and accepted medical use. Schedule I contains drugs with the highest potential for abuse and the lowest medical use and Schedule V contains those with low potential for abuse and high medical use.[14] For those drugs in higher Schedules, punishments can vary depending on the amount of drug a person is caught in possession of. Different States have their own legislation for scheduling drugs and for punishments. Hence, while ecstasy is a Schedule I drug in Florida, attracting a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison for selling, California has not scheduled ecstasy and does not, therefore, have specified penalties for its sale and possession.[15] The US spends large sums on research to provide evidence regarding drug abuse and the effectiveness of treatment and punishment regimes via the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the White House Office for National Drug Control Policy.


14. The overall objective of drugs policy in the Netherlands is to reduce the harm caused by drugs, both to individuals and to society. Policy is based on the premises that education, prevention and treatment are more effective than punishing users; that interventions should focus on the most harmful drugs; and that drug addiction is a 'normal social problem'.[16] Under the 1976 revision of the Dutch Opium Act, drugs are divided into two schedules: Schedule I drugs, such as heroin, present an unacceptable health risk while Schedule II drugs are associated with a negligible or acceptable health risk. Cannabis is a Schedule II drug. The intention behind creating these two Schedules was to separate the markets for 'hard' and 'soft' drugs and to thus prevent users moving from 'soft' to 'hard' drugs.[17]


15. Swedish drug legislation aims to produce a drug free state by reducing the availability of drugs to potential users. The 1968 Narcotics Drugs Act categorised drugs according to five lists: List I is for drugs with no medical use; Lists II-IV are for narcotic substances with medical use and List V deals with narcotic substances not subject to international controls. Classification of drugs is on the basis of their effects, rather than the punishments they attract for possession and supply. Drug policy research focuses primarily on efficacy of treatment and punishment regimes.


16. The key features of the UK, US, Dutch and Swedish drug policy regimes are described in Table 2. It is clear that despite the fact that the UK, US, Netherlands and Sweden are all signatories to the UN drug control treaties, their drug legislation policies differ significantly. This is important since some have argued that scope for reform of the UK classification system is constrained by its commitments under the UN conventions. We conclude that the UN drug control treaties do not pose a major barrier to reform of the UK system of drug classification. This is in accordance with the observation made in the Runciman report Drugs and the Law that "although they rule out the legalisation of any prohibited drug other than for medical, scientific or limited industrial purposes, the conventions allow more room for manoeuvre than is generally understood".[18]

Other reports and sources of information

17. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is a decentralised agency of the European Union. It describes itself as "the central source of comprehensive information on drugs and drug addiction in Europe" and aims to provide the EU and its Member States with objective, reliable information on drugs and drug addiction.[19]

18. Additional sources of advice available to the Government include the Forensic Science Service and the police, both of which are represented on the ACMD (see ANNEX). The annual British Crime Survey is also frequently cited as a source of evidence for making drugs policy. Other key reports of relevance to this inquiry include the Home Affairs Select Committee 2002 Report, The Government's Drug Policy: Is It Working?,[20] and the so-called 'Runciman report'—the Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Drugs and the Law, published by the Police Foundation in 2000.[21] Both of these recommended that changes be made to the classification of drugs under the ABC system, including the reclassification of cannabis from B to C and ecstasy from A to B. We discuss the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis in paragraph 43 and refusal to reconsider the Class of ecstasy in paragraph 61.
Table 2: Comparison of drug legislation policies and use: UK, USA, the Netherlands and Sweden
UK USA Netherlands Sweden
Aim of drug legislation To reduce supply, prevent uptake, reduce crime and increase treatment uptake To cut off supply of drugs to users To reduce harm to individuals and society To create a drug free state
Drug Classes Classes A-C; based on the relative harm of drugs. Class A is the most harmful, Class C the least harmful Five schedules (I to V): based on abuse, dependence and medical use Two schedules: I for drugs with unacceptable health risk; II for negligible risk drugs Five lists; list I is narcotics with no medical use; list V is drugs that lie outside international conventions
Different penalties for Classes Yes Yes Yes No
Punishment scales Maximum penalties depend on the nature of the offence (supply or possession) Maximum penalties depend on amount of drug possessed. Different penalties in different States. Penalties increase with the number of offences Maximum penalties depend on amount of drug possessed. Penalties increase with the number of offences Maximum penalties depend on the amount of drug possessed
Maximum imprisonment for possession Up to 7 years for Class A drugs Up to life for large quantities Up to 2 years Up to 10 years for large quantities
Treatment regime Opportunities for offenders to take treatment rather than fines or cautions 2.  Drug courts recommend treatment regimes rather than prison sentences 3.  Can be enforced for addicts with drug crime history 4.  Mandatory for offenders who are a danger to themselves or society
Use of scientific evidence in policy making? Evidence on medical and social harm, punishment and treatment may be considered. 5.  Large budget for research. Specific scientific criteria for scheduling drugs 6.  Government commissions research into drug harm and facilitates meetings between scientists and policy makers 7.  Scientific evidence on treatment is used, but not on drug harm
Drugs in top class/schedule/list identified as a policy concern cocaine




cocaine heroin


% population using any drug in the last 12 months
12.2 14.5
(for cannabis alone)[22]
Education National Curriculum guidelines on teaching about drug issues Government funded programme for drug free schools No legal requirement to teach drug issues but there are state guidelines All years in school have drug teaching; involves parents and pupils
Street price

(US$ per gram; 2004)

  • Cocaine - 0.97
  • Cannabis - 4.40
  • amphetamine - 14.70
  • cocaine - 0.77
  • cannabis - 11.40
  • methamphetamine - 96.50
  • cocaine - 0.50
  • cannabis - 6.90
  • amphetamine - 8.00
  • cocaine - 0.86
  • cannabis - 5.90
  • amphetamine - 33.90

Source: RAND report

6   Ev 53 Back

7   HC Deb, 25 March 1970, col 1453. This was the Government's first attempt to introduce an ABC classification system - the Misuse of Drugs Bill 1970 was not passed but the classification system was eventually introduced under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  Back

8   HC Deb, 25 March 1970, col 1453 Back

9   Correct as of March 2006. Back

10   RAND Report, para 2 Back

11   As above, Addendum, section 1.2 Back

12   Ev 96 Back

13   RAND Report Back

14   RAND Report, para 182 Back

15   As above, para 212 Back

16   As above, para 222-225 Back

17   As above, paras 222-226 Back

18   The Police Foundation, DRUGS AND THE LAW: Report into the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, March 2000, para 12 Back

19 Back

20   Home Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2001-02, The Government's Drug Policy: Is It Working?, HC 318-I Back

21   Runciman Report Back

22   Figures for any drug use in the last 12 months are not available for the Netherlands. Back

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