Drugs, alcohol and the law

Of course, not all drugs are illegal, including medicines, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, the drug that’s most commonly used for recreational purposes. Many of the drugs that might be used by some young people are illegal, however, but the law does get a bit complicated.


Under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy, ketamine, Xanax (alprazolam) and cocaine, have been classified into categories A, B or C depending on the degree of risk they were seen to have. It is illegal to produce, import, possess or supply these drugs. The legal penalties depend on a range of factors including whether they’re Class A, B or C, how much is found and what’s being done with them. You can find out what the classes of different drugs are and the maximum sentences for offences here.


Under the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016) some drugs are legal to possess (under most circumstances) but not to give or sell to someone else. This includes nitrous oxide if supplied for human consumption. You find out more in the DrugWatch ‘A simple(-ish) guide to the psychoactive substances act’ here.



In a number of places in the world cannabis is legally available for medicinal purposes. In a smaller number of these it’s also legal for recreational use. This includes Canada, Uruguay and 11 US states, and other countries and states are reconsidering their own cannabis policies.


However, in the UK cannabis is a Class B drug and so it’s illegal to import, produce, possess or supply it to someone else. Medicinal cannabis can now legally be prescribed by a doctor in the UK, but of course this is a very different product than the cannabis that’s for sale on the illegal market.


Many young people are unclear about what the consequences can be for them if caught breaking the law.

Not a lot of young people know that…

  • Supply: simply giving an illegal drug to another person is classed as supply, whether money passes hands or not. Have a look at this BBC3 documentary mini series, One Night of Ecstasy, which tells the story of teenager Christian Pay. Chris died from ecstasy at Kendall Calling festival in summer 2015, and his friend Simon, the one in the group who just collected everyone’s money in and went off and bought the drugs, ended up serving six months of a custodial sentence for supply.
  • Possession: looking after or ‘holding’ drugs for someone else is classed as possession, even if they don’t belong to you, as does having them in your bedroom at home, not necessarily on your person. 
  • Getting caught: there can be implications for anyone who gains a criminal record for a drugs offence, of which many young people are unaware. They would have to declare it on a UCAS form if they are applying for university. They would be unable to access many jobs – anything that requires a DBS check, or the police, medical or legal professions. They would also be unable to travel to many parts of the world, including America and Canada. This is the case even with just a warning.
  • Drugs abroad: anyone caught with illegal drugs abroad, for example on a holiday with friends, can find not only that there are very severe penalties in many countries (27 countries have a mandatory death sentence for drug offences), but they will also have their passport confiscated on their return to the UK because of having been arrested in another country, and will be unable to have it back for two years.
  • Drink driving: although most young people are aware that there are blood-alcohol limits for driving, most are unclear that it’s very difficult to gauge exactly how much and what this would allow any individual to consume and when.
  • Drug driving: since March 2015 drug driving is also now an offence and unlike with alcohol there is no upper limit to consumption – any amount of any one of eight listed drugs found in a person’s system prohibits them from driving. Passive smoking of cannabis by the driver of a car whose friend is smoking weed in the back seat can produce a positive test result, because this can impair their judgement and ability to drive safely. In 2018 105 people were killed and 1,787 were injured in accidents in 2017 in which drugs was a contributory factor. (Ministry of Transport)
  • Other risks include drunk and disorderly, breach of the peace, public order offences and sexual offences. This includes consent if the other person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.


The legal consequences of having a criminal conviction, and especially a drugs conviction, can have a lasting impact on people’s lives:

  • There are a number of countries who won’t give visas to anyone with a criminal record, including America
  • There are a number of jobs, especially those with children or vulnerable adults, where a criminal conviction could be a barrier and potentially prevent you getting work
  • You have to declare any criminal convictions on your UCAS form if you’re applying for university.