The law

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) is a legal framework to allow the control of drugs and includes laws on licensing, production, supply and possession. It controls drugs based on their chemical structure and since enactment over 500 chemicals have been outlawed. Penalties depend on the type of drug and they are classified as Class A, B or C. These drugs are illegal to have, sell or give away.

If someone needs help after taking drugs it is important to call an ambulance rather than worrying about getting into trouble.

Class A drug

Penalties for possession are up to 7 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. Penalties for supply are up to life in prison and/or an unlimited fine.

Class B drug

Penalties for possession are up to five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. Penalties for supply are up to 14 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.

Class C drug

Penalties for possession without a prescription are up to 2 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. Penalties for supply are up to 14 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. (Most benzodiazepine drugs will be Class C unless prescribed by a doctor.)

Psychoactive Substances Act (2016)

Psychoactive Substances, also known as New or Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and which used to be known as “legal highs” or “legals” are now covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016).

It was introduced in the UK in 2016 and makes it an offence to manufacture, export/import (i.e. buying from a non-UK website) supply or offer to supply any psychoactive substance, if likely to be used for its psychoactive effects.

Despite being psychoactive, alcohol, nicotine, tobacco and caffeine are exempt from the act. Under the PSA, possession with intent to supply is an offence. Possession is not an offence, except in a ‘custodial institution’ (e.g. prison, young offenders centre). Penalties range from civil sanctions to a 7-year prison sentence but some offences will be considered to be aggravated, including selling to under 18s or around schools and children’s homes etc. The Human Medicines Regulations (2012) and the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) including Temporary Class Drug Orders (TCDOs) will remain unchanged. The police have increased powers to stop and search individuals and premises, and NPS may be treated like a controlled drug until proven otherwise.

Restricted Sales

Some drugs are legal to sell under restricted conditions. For example alcohol can only be sold to people over the age of 18 and in Scotland it can only be sold in shops between the hours of 10am and 10pm or sold in “licensed premises” such as bars, restaurants and nightclubs. It is an offence to sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 18 and it is also illegal to purchase alcohol for anyone under the age of 18.

Tobacco is also restricted to only be sold to people over the age of 18.


There is also a law about the sale of medicines. The Medicines Act (1968) covers the control of medicines for human use and for veterinary use, which includes the manufacture and supply of medicines. If you have a drug that is considered a medicine without a prescription it could be illegal to have, sell or give it away.


Driving after drinking more than 0.5 units of alcohol is illegal – always ensure you are sober and well rested before driving. Scotland has a drink drive limit of 22 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath (the ‘breath limit’) but other countries vary. Ensure you research the drink driving legislation of the country you are in.
In October 2019 Scotland brought into effect new legislation relating to drugs and driving. This new legislation brings a zero-tolerance approach and is more strict than the rest of the UK. It is now illegal to have specified traces of a controlled substance in your blood, saliva or urine and operate a road vehicle. There is no longer a requirement to prove impairment while driving in order for an offence to have been committed.

Please be aware that detection of any drug will depend on purity, regularity of use, other medications or drugs you have taken, your body and how it’s taken. Cannabis is thought to be detected in blood and urine for much longer after the most recent use than other drugs. Police Scotland can now carry out roadside testing for cannabis and cocaine using a saliva swab. They can also take you to a police station and perform a blood test for other drugs.

If you need legal advice relating to drugs get in touch with Release by calling  020 7324 2989 or emailing

If you are involved in criminal proceedings relating to drugs in Scotland your legal representative can instruct Crew to offer Expert Witness Services. The Crew expert witness team can give a realistic and credible account of the nature of drug markets and drug use.

Anyone who would like support for their drug use can find their local drug service in Scotland here.

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