Drugs: The law in detail

This section features the provisions of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in much more detail, breaking down the various sections of the Act


Section 4(12) of the Act makes it unlawful for any person without lawful authority to ‘produce’ a controlled drug; or  to ‘supply’ or offer to supply a controlled drug to another person. Note :- ‘Produce’ includes manufacture, cultivation, or any other method.  ‘Supply’ involves the parting of possession from one person to another and includes distribution.

Unlawful Possession

Section 5 of the Act creates two offences dealing with the unlawful possession of controlled drugs. Section 5(1) makes it unlawful for a person to have controlled drugs in their possession. Section 5(2) creates an offence for any person to have a controlled drug in their possession in contravention of subsection 1, without lawful authority.  

It is immaterial how small the amount the person has in their possession eg a person found to have a minute quantity in their jacket pocket would be charged with possession.

A person who was found to be in possession of a larger number of deals, or an amount sufficiently large to suggest it was not for personal use, would be charged under Section 5(3) of the Act which makes it an offence for any person to possess a controlled drug, whether lawfully or not, with intent to unlawfully supply it to another person. Possession includes constructive possession as well as actual possession (eg drugs found in a flat while the tenant is temporarily absent).

Intent to supply  might be proved by the fact that some of the following were also found during the search : a large quantity of money or drugs; pieces of paper with notations referring to the sale of drugs; scales; cut magazine papers for wrapping powdered drugs; clingfilm; cutting agents (used to dilute the strength of powered drugs thus increasing the profit margin of dealer eg glucose, lactose etc).

Statutory Defence

A person accused of unlawful possession of a controlled drug has a defence if they can prove to the court that  suspecting the substance to be  a controlled drug, they took possession of it to prevent others from committing drug offences, and as soon as possible thereafter took all reasonable steps to destroy the drug or deliver it to a person entitled to possess it (eg police officer, doctor or chemist).

Lawful Possession

Certain persons are entitled to possess controlled drugs in the course of their employment, (eg doctor, vet, dentist, chemist or police officer in the execution of their duty). Obviously any other person who has been lawfully prescribed a drug may also possess the drug concerned (some addicts are prescribed controlled drugs in an attempt to control their habit eg Methadone).

Occupiers Liable for Misuse of Premises

Section 8 of the Act provides that it is an offence for the occupier or manager of any premises to knowingly permit or suffer the premises to be used for any of the following purposes : Unlawfully producing or attempting to produce a controlled drug;  Unlawfully supplying or attempting to supply a controlled drug; preparing opium for smoking; smoking cannabis, cannabis resin or prepared opium. This could also apply to a person holding a party if they knowingly allow drugs to be used.

Supply of Articles for Administering Drugs

A person who supplies or offers to supply any article which may be used to prepare a controlled drug for administration by any person to himself or another believing that the article is to be so used in circumstances where the administration is unlawful is guilty of an offence. 

An amendment came into force in 2003 to give doctors, pharmacists and drug workers the authority to supply certain items of drug injecting articles (known as ‘paraphernalia’) to drug users, such as needle exchanges.

Powers of Search

Section 23 of the Act gives certain powers enabling the police to carry out searches for evidence of drug offences.

If a constable has reasonable grounds to suspect that any person is in possession of a controlled drug they may without warrant : Search that person and detain them for that purpose; search any vehicle or vessel in which they suspect that a drug may be found, and for that purpose require person in charge of vehicle or vessel to stop it; seize and detain anything found in the course of the search which appears to be evidence of a drugs offence. 


Section 23(4) creates an offence for any person to intentionally obstruct the police in the exercise of any lawful power of search.