Legal aspects

Chemicals with the potential for misuse can be classified according to their legal status:

• legal and freely available: alcohol (see Chapter 13), tobacco, caffeine, and solvents

• sanctioned for medical use on prescription: hypnotics, minor tranquillizers, opiates, anabolic steroids, and anticholinergics, especially procyclidine

• illegal: for example, cannabis and cocaine.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 governs the production, distribution, prescribing, and possession of certain drugs. The drugs controlled under this Act are divided into classes A, B, and C, with class A drugs being most dangerous and carrying the most severe penalties for misuse. The Act also distinguishes Schedules 1 through 5, which govern the rules for possession, storage, prescription, and keeping of records. Further details are given in the British National Formulary (BNF).

The legal status of a drug may not be an accurate reflection of its dangerous-ness. Alcohol (see Chapter 13) and tobacco, which are legal and even socially encouraged in many settings, are possibly more threatening to life and health from a strictly chemical point of view than some of the illegal substances considered in this chapter.

Much of the harm of illegal drugs probably comes from the fact that they are illegal; if they were legalized and made commercially available, they could be taxed and regulated in the same way as legal substances such as alcohol. There is a strong civil liberties argument for this course of action. It is also illogical for some types of mood-altering substances to be legal and others illegal. However, it seems unlikely that there will be the political will to tackle these anomalies in the immediate future.

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