Drugs and crime

It’s not just drug dealers who will be arrested if they get caught in the act. Carrying drugs for personal use can land you a large fine or time in prison too. It’s a good idea to understand the laws surrounding drug classifications, possession and intent to supply

Drugs and the law

In addition to possession, it is also illegal to supply anyone with drugs, to produce drugs or to import or export drugs. It is also illegal to allow premises you own, rent, use or occupy to be used for any drug-related activity.

If you are found with drugs in close proximity to a school, youth facility or location where young people formally meet, the courts will treat this as an aggravating factor and can impose higher penalties.

Drug dependency

For many drug users, increased drug use can lead to dependency and this condition can lead to many new problems. As drug misuse and dependency increases it can become more difficult to work and maintain a job. This can lead to financial problems as bills, such as mortgages, rent and rates, together with other household bills, cannot be paid.

Even social security benefits may not be sufficient to provide enough income to support the drug use. Money may need to be borrowed and if repayments can't be met, this brings other problems.

As drug misuse increases, some people may resort to crime, such as burglary, to find items that can be stolen and sold to others to raise money to buy more drugs. Others may resort to more serious crimes such as robbery, theft, extortion - anything to secure money to buy drugs. Some people will resort to dealing to raise income, but if caught by the police this can lead to higher penalties being given by a court.

It is important to realise that getting involved in drugs can bring many other problems that can affect your health, your relationships with your family and friends, your financial wellbeing and where you live.

How drugs are classified

Drugs are put into one of three categories, according to how dangerous they are and the impact they have on society - not necessarily the individual. It’s worth remembering that different drugs affect people in different ways. Drugs in all classes, not just those in ‘Class A’, are very dangerous.

The three categories of drugs are Class A, Class B and Class C:

  • class A drugs are drugs that have the most harmful effects - these drugs include heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD
  • class B drugs include speed, cannabis, mephedrone and some amphetamines
  • class C drugs include ketamine, GHB, anabolic steroids and some tranquilisers

In addition to these three classifications, a further new classification called “Temporary Class Drug Banning Orders” is in place to tackle the issue of psychoactive substances (sometimes mislabelled as legal highs) or new psychoactive substances that are increasingly being produced by chemical factories.

The chemical composition of these new substances changes more quickly than the legislation and so these temporary banning orders have been introduced to combat these new drugs. This allows the substance to be banned until analysis can be carried out to assess the potential risks to human health.

Possessing drugs

If the police stop you and you are in possession of drugs, it is likely that you will be arrested. The drugs found in your possession will be seized and destroyed.

If you're caught with drugs you may be charged with possessing (or possession with intent to supply - a much more serious offence) controlled drugs, whether it's yours or not. If you're aged 17 or under, the police are allowed to tell your parent, guardian or carer that you've been caught.

If the police find you with drugs the punishment that you receive will depend on the class of drug, the quantity of drugs found, where you are found (if found close to a school or youth club, the court can give a higher sentence) and your personal history (previous crimes, but importantly, any previous drug offences).

For example, if you are under 18 years old and found with a Class C drug, and depending on the circumstances, it should be anticipated that, as a minimum, you will receive a formal (recorded) warning and a police caution. You may also be referred to the police Youth Diversion Scheme. If over 18 years it should be anticipated that you will receive a caution and further action, such as prosecution, will depend upon the decision reached by the Public Prosecution Service.

History of drug offences

If you're found with a Class A or B drug and have a history of drug offences, you will be prosecuted and this opens a new range of punishments available.

The maximum sentences for possession of each class of drug are:

  • up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine (or both) for a Class A drug
  • up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine (or both) for a Class B drug
  • up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine (or both) for a Class C drug

Sentences can increase a lot more if you are found to be dealing in drugs or supplying them - even if it's just to friends with no money changing hands.


Cannabis is still illegal, no matter how much or little you have in your possession. Cannabis is a Class B drug.

The maximum penalty for possession of cannabis is five years imprisonment. A magistrates' court can also impose a fine of up to £2,500.

If the Public Prosecution Service decides to prosecute you for supplying or producing an illicit drug the maximum prison sentence remains at 14 years.

Cannabis factories continue to be discovered in Northern Ireland. This is an important issue for landlords. There is a clear message that you should regularly check your property to ensure that it is not being used as a cannabis factory.

Psychoactive substances (sometimes mislabelled as legal highs)

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which was commenced on 26 May 2016, makes it an offence to produce, supply or offer to supply any psychoactive substance if the substance is likely to be used for its psychoactive effects, regardless of its potential for harm.

Nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and "Poppers" or alkyl nitrites will be exempt from being classed as psychoactive substances. Medicinal products as defined by the Human Medicines Regulations (2012) and drugs already controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) will also be exempt. 

The Act will make it an offence to produce, supply or offer to supply any psychoactive substance if the substance is likely to be used for its psychoactive effects, regardless of its potential for harm.

Whilst personal possession isn’t covered under the Act it will be up to the police and courts to decide the quantifiable difference between personal possession and possession with intent to supply.

Possession of a psychoactive substance in a ‘custodial institution’ (prison, young offender centre, removal centre and so on) will be an offence.

The importing of a psychoactive substance, which would include buying a psychoactive substance from a non-UK based website, may lead to individuals being prosecuted. It is important that users understand this - especially if this is the means by which they currently buy substances.

Possessing any psychoactive substance with intent to supply, supplying or offering to supply, producing, importing or exporting, all carry a penalty of either up to 6 months imprisonment and/ or a fine, or up to 7 years imprisonment and / or a fine.

Offences under the Psychoactive Substances Act would be considered ‘aggravated’ if they involved supply to under 18s, were near a school or a children’s home (Local authority children’s homes and so on).

Intent to supply and dealing

If you are found to be supplying or dealing drugs, the punishment is likely to be tough. Supplying drugs doesn’t just apply to dealers. If police suspect that you intend to share drugs with your friends, this is still considered to be supplying.

Being suspected of supplying drugs means you are much more likely to be charged. The amount of drugs found on you, and whether you have a criminal record, will be taken into account when a punishment is being decided.

Decisions to prosecute are taken by the Public Prosecution Service. The maximum sentences for intent to supply drugs are:

  • up to life in prison or an unlimited fine (or both) for a Class A drug
  • up to 14 years in prison or an unlimited fine (or both) for a Class B or Class C drug

Other restrictions

It is also important to note that if you are found guilty of a drug offence this will have significant implications for your future life. You may not be able to take up the career that you hoped and some countries will not let you in, even as a tourist, if you have been found guilty of a drug offence.

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