The term ‘drug’ can be used to refer to any substance that can modify physical or intellectual functions. It is usually meant to describe products used in the context of medical treatment, but can also refer to chemical or natural materials which are taken for purely recreational reasons.
Although alcohol is legally available (to people who are 18 or over) and is generally not considered to be a ‘drug’, its biological effects are similar to some (prohibited as well as legal) drugs: it acts as a depressant on the central nervous system and is classified as a ‘sedative-hypnotic’ substance.
Simply, those are drugs which use is prohibited by legislation. In the UK two main pieces of legislation define the legal status of drugs:
‘Drug offences’ relate to importing, exporting, producing, supplying or possessing illegal drugs. They are distinct from ‘drug-related offences’, which refer to criminal activities in some way caused by drug use. For example, it is often assumed that people addicted to illegal substances may commit acquisitive crimes like robberies, burglaries or shoplifting in order to finance their drug use.
‘Alcohol-related crime’ refers to behaviour in which alcohol use is involved as a contributory factor to the unlawful activity. This can include street disorder, fights or lewd behaviour associated with drinking.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 classifies illegal drugs into three main categories, according to their perceived harmfulness. (These categories have been amended over time.)
Possession is generally treated less harshly than dealing. For example, 82% of those found guilty of dealing in cocaine, crack or heroin were sentenced to immediate custody in 2004. Of those convicted of possessing a Class A drug in the same year, only 5% were sentenced to immediate custody, while 44% received cautions, 22% fines, 11% conditional or absolute discharges and 9% community sentences.
A ‘Drug Rehabilitation Requirement’, introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2014, can be imposed by the courts as part of a community sentence. For more information, see the ’Community Sentences for Adults’ Factsheet.
Enforcement measures have tended to impact disproportionately on ethnic minorities, most notably black people, who are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug offences than white people.
The use and sale of alcoholic products is regulated by a number of laws: