ABC classification system

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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.

6 Ev 53

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.

8 HC Deb, 25 March 1970, col 1453

9 Correct as of March 2006.

Table 1: Classification of illegal 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.

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  • niklas
    Who classification of abc drugs?
    2 years ago
  • Katrin
    What is ABC syestem of drug?
    1 year ago
  • Josh Munro
    What are the drugs categories of ABC?
    4 months ago
  • conor
    What is ABC classified drugs?
    2 months ago
  • margaret
    When was the a,b,c class of drugs introduced?
    19 days ago

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