What Are Drugs And Poisons Criminology Essay

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Drugs are substances of natural or synthetic origin that can be used to alter someones emotional state, perception, body functioning or behaviour. Many drugs have legitimate medical uses, and these and others are subject to "abuse" or "recreational use". Many of these substances are subject to national and international control, and therefore the detection, identification and quantification of these substances is an important aspect of forensic science.

Poisons can be defined as substances that are harmful to living organisms, including systemic poisons, metallic poisons, corrosive poisons and natural toxins. Toxicology is the study of poisons, and is a wide-ranging discipline that includes forensic, clinical, industrial, environmental, molecular, biochemical, product-development and regulatory toxicology. Forensic toxicology is the study of poisons in relation to the law, and includes medical-legal aspects of poisonings, identification and quantification of poisons, and investigation of the relationship between levels of poisons and metabolites in the body and cause of death. It is interesting to note however that the body just sees them as another chemical.

Before tackling this first activity read Chapter 9 "Drugs" in Saferstein. (Chapter 10 will also be useful background to read before the module ends). You may also find it useful to visit some of the following websites, which are valuable learning resources containing much useful drug-related information:










The History of Drug Abuse

Drugs have been used for "legitimate" medical purposes for thousands of years, and their "abuse", or use for non-medical purposes, has an equally long history. Many of the drugs whose misuse is rife in today's society have been known for hundreds or even thousands of years. Some of the key events in the history of drug use and abuse are outlined below:

3500 BC: the "evils of drinking alcohol" were recorded on Egyptian papyrus

3200 BC: evidence of the cultivation of the opium poppy in the remains of neolithic settlements in Switzerland.

2737 BC: cannabis was referred to as a "superior" herb in the world's first pharmacopoeia, or medical text, the Shen Nung's Pen Ts'ao, in China.

1400 BC: first recorded religious and cultural use of ganga, or cannabis, by Hindus in India.

3rd C BC: the writings of Theophrastus contain the first known written reference to opium.

400 AD: cannabis was cultivated for the first time in the UK at Old Buckenham Mere.

1551 AD: Spanish settlers in South America found cocaine use, for religious, social and medicinal purposes, to be widespread among the native people. The Bishop of Cuzco called cocaine "an evil agent of the Devil" and outlawed its use.

1611 AD: British settlers began to grow cannabis in Virginia, USA

1680 AD: an English doctor, Sydenham, wrote "among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium".

1806 AD: Friedrich Serturner isolated a pure compound from opium, which he named morphine after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep. Codeine, papaverine and others followed in subsequent decades.

1860 AD: US government-commissioned study concluded that cannabis is beneficial for the treatment of neuralgia, whooping cough, asthma, chronic bronchitis, epilepsy, muscular spasms and alcohol withdrawal, amongst others.

1868 AD: possession of cannabis was made a capital offence by the Emir of Egypt

1870 AD: cannabis was listed in the US Pharmacopoeia as a medicine

1875 AD: heroin was first synthesised from morphine

1880 AD: nitrous oxide and ether sniffing became popular crazes at parties for the upper classes

1911 AD: the use of cannabis was banned in South Africa

1912 AD: first suggestions that cannabis should be banned internationally at the First Opium Conference

1917 AD: cocaine, heroin and morphine came under legal control in the UK

1925 AD: in the UK the Dangerous Drugs Act 1925 made cannabis illegal

1941 AD: cannabis was dropped from the US Pharmacopoeia

1964 AD: tetrahydrocannabinol was first isolated from cannabis

1971 AD: in the UK the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was passed

Even volatile substance abuse has a long history. The following extract is taken from Brecher, "Licit and Illicit Drugs", Little Brown, 1972:

"A Grand Exhibition of the effects produced by inhaling Nitrous Oxide Exhilarating or Laughing Gas! Will be given in the Union Hall this (Tuesday) evening, December 10th 1884.

Forty gallons of Gas will be prepared and administered to all in the audience who desire to inhale it. Twelve Young Men are engaged to occupy the front seats to protect those under the influence of the Gas from injuring themselves or others.

The effect of the Gas is to make those who inhale it either to Laugh, Sing, Dance, Speak or Fight, and so forth, according to the leading trait of their character. They seem to retain consciousness enough not to say or do that which they would have occasion to regret.

N.B. The Gas will administered only to gentlemen of the first respectability. The object is to make the entertainment in every respect a genteel affair."

Extracts from coca leaves, containing traces of cocaine, were popular as "tonic wines" during the late nineteenth century, and cocaine also found use in other products, such as toothache remedies. Even Coca Cola contained traces of cocaine until 1906, when it was replaced by caffeine.

Advertisement for Cocaine Tooth Drops from 1885

You may find it useful to visit some of the following websites, which contain useful background information on historical perspectives of drug abuse:



The History of Forensic Toxicology

The history of poisons and poisoning dates back thousands of years. Some of the key events in the history of forensic toxicology are outlined below:

16,000 BC: Masai tribe in Kenya used arrow tips dipped in strophanthin for hunting

1500 BC: poisonous properties of arsenic, lead, hemlock, opium, aconite, etc, described on an ancient Egyptian manuscript, the Elbers Papyrus

1100 BC: aconite used on poison arrows in India

399 BC: Socrates was murdered by poisoning with hemlock

2nd C BC: Nicander experimented with snake venom on prisoners in ancient Greece

1st C BC: homicide by poisoning was well established in ancient Rome, with victims including the emperor Claudius

1198 AD: "Treatise on Poisons" written by Moses Maimonides

16th C AD: Paracelsus pioneered the scientific development of toxicology

1593 AD: "unicorn horns", actually rhinoceros horns or narwhal tusks, claimed to be an antidote to arsenic poisoning

1719 AD: Mme Giulia Toffana was executed for the murder of more than 600 victims by poisoning with arsenic trioxide

1814 AD: "Traite des Poisons" written by Mattieu Orfila, the "Father of Modern Toxicology"

1831 AD: Touery demonstrated the use of charcoal to prevent poisoning from ingested strychnine in front of the French Academy of Science

1840 AD: Mme Lafarge convicted of the murder of her husband due to Orfila's new laboratory tests for arsenic, and attention to quality assurance issues

1851 AD: Jean Servais Stas developed methods for identification of vegetable poisons in body tissue.

The Major Classes of Drugs of Abuse

Under UK law a controlled drug is defined as a substance of which the use, sale and distribution is regulated by the UK Government via the Home Office. The purpose of regulating these substances is to limit their availability to those likely to abuse them, whilst providing for their legitimate medical, scientific and industrial use.

There are many different ways of classifying drugs. For example they can be classified on the basis of their physiological and psychological effects on the user:

stimulants: stimulate the central nervous system, e.g. amphetamines, cocaine

depressants: depress the central nervous system, e.g. alcohol, barbiturates

narcotics: induce lethargy and relieve pain, e.g. heroin, methadone

hallucinogens: alter thought processes and perceptions, e.g. cannabis, LSD

Most are actually mixed-effect substances, but all exhibit a degree of psychoactivity.

There are a great many controlled drugs, but most forensic drugs analysis focuses on a few key substances, shown in the table below:

Major Types of Controlled Drugs



Major Active


Usual Dosage




plant material,

resin, oil








e.g. ephedrine






Lysergic acid diethylamide

microdots, resin,

blotter acids


e.g. phenobarbitone



e.g. diazepam



Cocaine is a naturally-occurring alkaloid substance that is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant, Erythroxylon coca and related tree species, grown mainly in South and Central America. Cocaine is the major active ingredient, with other alkaloids, e.g. truxillines and cinnamoyl-cocaines, present in lesser amounts. At present around 90% of the cocaine seized in the UK originates from Colombia.

Cocaine may be encountered as its hydrochloride salt, a fluffy white powder in its pure form known as "snow", in impure form diluted with cutting agents, or in the free base form as hard, granular lumps known as "crack", which looks rather like discoloured broken teeth.

Formerly viewed as an expensive society drug, cocaine abuse on the increase in the UK. Cocaine powder is usually administered by "snorting" and is absorbed through the mucous membranes of the nose, whilst crack cocaine is usually smoked. The effect is a short-lived high of such intensity that it usually results in immediate psychological addiction, and few crack users can ever kick the habit, though there is no evidence of actual physical dependence. Cocaine is a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system, and induces increased confidence and alertness. However prolonged use can result in convulsions, mental depression, and paranoia, and acute overdose may cause death by cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest.

cocaine hydrochloride crack cocaine


Heroin is synthesised from the morphine extracted from the sap of the opium poppy. Its chemical name is diacetylmorphine, often abbreviated to diamorphine. Its synthesis was first reported by two English chemists in 1875, and heroin was manufactured by the Bayer Company in Germany, from the 1890s, for use as an analgesic to treat lung diseases. It was also marketed as a supposed cure for morphine addiction, and the name "heroin" appears to originate from the drug being hailed as a "heroic remedy" to save morphine addicts. However the devastating addictive properties of heroin itself soon became apparent, as it became a far greater problem than morphine. As a result the medical use of heroin was severely restricted, though it was not entirely banned in the USA until 1956.

Heroin can be produced entirely synthetically, i.e. from raw chemicals, but this is a ten-step process which requires considerable expertise in synthetic organic chemistry, and even then gives only low yields. All other methods of heroin production use the opium poppy as the raw starting material. There are many such methods, but all involve the same four essential steps:

cultivation of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum

extraction of opium latex from the poppy seed head

extraction of morphine from the opium latex

acetylation of morphine

the opium poppy

Detailed knowledge of the various extraction and acetylation methods is vitally important for several reasons: Firstly knowledge of the equipment, chemicals, solvents, etc, required for the process aids the authorities in locating clandestine drugs laboratories through information from chemical and laboratory equipment suppliers. Secondly, whilst pharmaceutical-grade heroin is >99.5% pure, illegally produced heroin typically ranges from 15% to 75% purity. Impurities include unreacted morphine, plus other alkaloid compounds such as codamine, papaverine, thebaine and codeine, which are by-products of the extraction and acetylation processes. Cutting agents, such as caffeine or sugars, may also have been deliberately added to dilute the drug and help conceal its identity. The purity, physical appearance, and the relative amounts of the various impurities can help to identify the geographical origin. Furthermore since heroin is produced in batches each batch has a unique profile of impurities which can be used to help link different seizures and trace supply chains.

The illegal manufacture of heroin has been reported as early as the 1920s in China, and the number of countries illegally growing opium poppies and producing heroin has risen enormously over the subsequent decades.

South East Asia: SE Asian countries, principally Burma, China and Laos, generally produce high quality heroin recognisable by its white, crystalline appearance. This is often cut with caffeine.

South West Asia: SW Asian heroin, from Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, is usually of slightly lower purity and of off-white to light brown powdery appearance. Most finds its way to the UK and the rest of Europe. Currently over 90% of all heroin imported into the UK originates from opium grown in Afghanistan, though the majority is processed into heroin in neighbouring countries, such as Iran and Pakistan.

Central America: Most originates from Mexico and Guatemala and is smuggled into the US across the Mexican border. Purity is variable and the material is usually highly coloured, ranging from dark brown powder to black tar, from processing by-products. This is often cut with sugar.

South America: Heroin production in S America, primarily Columbia, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Usually high purity, white to off-white powder with few adulterants.

Heroin is usually administered by intravenous injection as a solution. This produces a "high" that is accompanied by drowsiness and a sense of well-being, though the high is short-lived whilst the drowsiness is prolonged. Extended abuse leads to physical and psychological dependence, where discontinued use leads to withdrawal symptoms such as choking and nausea. Acute overdose can lead to fatality, often by respiratory arrest since heroin affects the part of the brain responsible for controlling breathing.

In small-scale seizures from suspected heroin users the drug itself is often accompanied by the paraphernalia associated with injection: needles, syringes, spoons, etc, and this aids identification of the drug.

different physical forms of heroin


Cannabis is a collective term for the various products of the plant Cannabis sativa. All contain the main active constituent 9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, along with other related compounds. The cannabis products most widely encountered are:

dried plant material

cannabis resin

hash oil

In terms of volume cannabis accounts for by far the largest proportion of drug seizures in the UK. Most UK cannabis currently originates from Morocco, with smaller quantities imported from Pakistan, Lebanon, etc.

Cannabis is usually administered by smoking. It is a mild depressant and hallucinogen, which induces relaxation but may impair co-ordination and short-term memory. Higher doses may result in hallucinations, anxiety and psychotic reactions. Cannabis is not physically addictive, but psychological dependence may occur.


Amphetamines are a group of synthetic drugs, some of which are occasionally prescribed for medical use. They include:




They are readily synthesised in clandestine drug laboratories, in various physical forms. In the UK amphetamine itself is the most widely encountered, whereas methamphetamine predominates in the USA. Whilst methamphetamine appears to be on the increase in the USA, amphetamine use is currently declining in the UK.

molecular structure of methamphetamine:

Administration is either by ingestion, smoking or by intravenous injection.

Amphetamines are stimulants that increase alertness, breathing and heart rate, and users report an intense rush of euphoria followed by exhaustion and prolonged depression. Extended use may lead to panic and paranoia and even violent behaviour. Psychological dependence and tolerance develop with regular use, though there is no strong evidence of physical dependency.


Ecstasy or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, MDMA, is a "designer amphetamine" that can be synthesised from safrole, from the tree bark of sassafras albidum. Ecstasy is usually encountered as tablets, of almost any colour, size, shape and motif, and variable purity. Millions of tablets are now sold each month in the UK.

molecular structure of MDMA:

Ecstasy is administered by ingestion. It is a stimulant and mild hallucinogen, causing feelings of empathy and decreased inhibitions. Muscle aches, drowsiness, and disorientation may occur after use. Psychological disturbances, including paranoia and chronic depression may occur, and occasionally fatality due to hyperpyrexia, renal or liver failure.

MDMA belongs to a large family of structurally-related drugs, that include 3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine, MDA, and 3,4-methylenedioxyethylamphetamine, MDEA. During the 1980s the synthesis of new structurally-related analogues of MDMA enabled manufacturers to bypass the drug laws and escape punishment, since these new compounds were not yet named on the controlled substances lists. This loophole has since been closed by changes in the legislation to include structural analogues, salts and stereoisomers of existing controlled drugs. The synthesis of new and novel drugs continues today, and in 2001 the Home Secretary added thirty five new "ecstasy-like" drugs to the Class A list under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971.


LSD, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, may be synthesised from lysergic acid, extracted from the ergot fungus, Clavica purpurea. It is usually encountered as blotter acids, microdots, or impregnated sugar cubes.

molecular structure of LSD

LSD is taken by ingestion. It is the most powerful hallucinogen known, and causes vivid and long-lasting visual hallucinations, often accompanied by anxiety, mood swings and paranoia. Flashbacks and psychotic reactions are common even after use is discontinued. Fatalities are rare, and are usually due to accidents occurring whilst hallucinating.


Barbiturates are a family of synthetic drugs developed for medicinal use as sedatives since 1903. An estimated 27,000 people died in the UK from barbiturate overdoses between 1959 and 1974.

They are occasionally encountered as tablets or capsules, legally manufactured then diverted to the illicit market.

molecular structure of butabarbitone

Administration is by ingestion. Barbiturates depress the central nervous system, inducing relaxation, loss of co-ordination and slurred speech. Extended use leads to tolerance and physical dependence. Withdrawal symptoms are severe and include seizures, delirium and convulsions. The risk of fatal overdose is high.


Benzodiazepines are a family of synthetic drugs developed for medicinal use as tranquillisers since the 1960s. They include:





Benzodiazepines currently account for 15 million prescriptions a year in the UK, and up to 1.7 million people are dependent on them They are usually encountered as tablets or capsules, legally manufactured then diverted to the illicit market.

Administration is by ingestion. Benzodiazepiness depress the central nervous system, relieving anxiety and tension, and inducing drowsiness. Extended use leads to tolerance and physical dependence. Withdrawal symptoms are severe and include anxiety, nausea and insomnia.


Alcohols are a series of organic compounds containing the -OH functional group. In the forensic context the term invariably refers to ethyl alcohol. Alcohol is not a controlled drug, but is a substance encountered by forensic toxicologists, principally in body fluids, mainly in relation to offences under the Road Traffic Act.

Most alcoholic beverages are either:

fermented beverages, where [alcohol] ï‚» 4 to 14%

distilled spirits, where [alcohol] ï‚» 40%

fortified wines, where [alcohol] ï‚» 18 to 24%

Forensic science is involved in cases of drink-driving and alcohol-related death. The courts of law may need to know, for example, the levels of alcohol in the body at the time of an incident, hence forensic scientists need knowledge of:

absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination of alcohol from the body.

legislation and technical defences

Alcohol depresses the CNS and its intoxicating effect generally correlates with the blood-alcohol level.

Blood-alcohol concentration




increased talkativeness


slurred speech


staggering and nausea


unsteadiness and loss of focus


probable coma


fatality possible


fatality probable

Hence RTA legislation specifies legal limits in terms of blood-alcohol level:

80 mg/100mL in blood

107 mg/100mL in urine

35 g/100mL in breath

Alcohol affects:

higher brain functions e.g. inhibition

lower brain functions e.g. breathing, cardio function

motor functions e.g. co-ordination

Once ingested, alcohol passes through the alimentary canal and absorbed by diffusion across the gut wall. The rate of absorption is affected by:

presence or absence of food in the stomach

type of food

whether the beverage is still or carbonated

alcoholic strength of the beverage

Once absorbed alcohol is quickly and evenly distributed throughout the body water. Distribution models enable calculation of maximum blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

90 to 98% of all absorbed alcohol is metabolised, mostly by oxidative decomposition by alcohol dehydrogenase:

alcohol ï‚® acetaldehyde ï‚® acetic acid ï‚® carbon dioxide

and water

The rate of metabolism differs between individuals but consistent for a given individual, rate ï‚»10 to 25 mg/100mL per hour. The remaining 2 to 10% is excreted unchanged through via the lungs, kidneys and skin.

Other Drugs

Other drugs of interest to forensic scientists include anabolic steroids, GHB, ketamine, and other hallucinogens including mescaline, phencyclidine and the active constituents of magic mushrooms. Information on these can be found in some of the websites listed in Section 1.1.

Trends in Drug Abuse and Drug-Related Crime

Trends in Drug Abuse in the UK

It is difficult to obtain reliable and representative data on the misuse of controlled drugs, in part due to the illegal and generally covert nature of this activity. Furthermore drug abuse is subject to considerable fluctuations with time and location. In a recent survey in the UK those questioned were asked to list all controlled drugs that they had ever tried in their lifetime. The drugs that most people had tried are listed below, in order:




magic mushrooms





Cannabis remains the most widely used illicit drug in the UK. According to the 2004-05 British Crime Survey, 9.7% of 16-59 year olds used cannabis in the last year. Cocaine was the second most widely used, with 2.0% of 16-59 year olds claiming to have used it in the last year. Ecstasy and amphetamine followed close behind at 1.8% and 1.4%, respectively, whilst crack cocaine use remained comparatively rare at 0.1%.

Illegal drug use in the UK, and elsewhere in the world, has increased greatly during the last three decades. The UK now has some of the highest levels of illegal drug use in Europe, particularly amongst young people, but the situation appears to have stabilised over the last few years. For most of the major drugs the level of use across most age groups in the UK appears to be levelling off or even decreasing. Cocaine use continues to rise, but even here there is some evidence of levelling-off.

In England and Wales in 2004 there were 107,360 drug seizures made by the police and customs, a fall of 2% from the previous year. Around 70% of all seizures were of Class C drugs, mostly cannabis, and around 27% of all seizures were of Class A drugs, mostly cocaine and heroin. Over recent years in England and Wales seizures of cannabis have fallen slightly, whilst seizures of cocaine, heroin and amphetamines have increased significantly. The total quantity of drugs seized in England and Wales in 2004 included:

83.5 tonnes of cannabis resin and herbal

88,600 cannabis plants

4.6 tonnes of cocaine

2.1 tonnes of heroin

1.2 tonnes of amphetamines

4.6 million ecstacy tablets

Source: UK Home Office: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs06/hosb0806.pdf

Clearly, the amount of illicit drugs actually seized by the authorities represents only a small fraction of the total entering the country illegally. The National Criminal Intelligence Service, NCIS, estimate that around 25 to 35 tonnes of heroin and 35 to 45 tonnes of cocaine are smuggled into the UK each year.

There has been a substantial drop in the average price of many drugs in the UK, such as cocaine and ecstasy, during recent years, whilst the prices of others, such as amphetamine and LSD have remained fairly stable. The table below summarises the current prices of some of the major types of drugs in the UK. Such data obviously masks the significant fluctuations that occur with time and locality, due to fashion and supply trends.

Typical Street Prices in the UK

Type of Drug

Typical Price in 2002

Average Price in 2008


£50 to £150 per ounce

£89 per ounce


£40 to £80 per gram

£49 per gram


£40 to £80 per gram

£42 per gram


£6 to £15 per gram

£9 per gram


£3 to £10 per tablet

£2.30 per tablet


£2 to £5 per dose

no data given

Data taken from a wide range of sources.

Further information on the current UK drug situation can be found on the Drugscope website, at: http://www.drugscope.org.uk

Drug-Related Crime in the UK

For the period 2005-06 there were 5.56 million recorded offences in England and Wales, including more than 2.02 million vehicle thefts, 1.22 million violent crimes, and 1.18 million recorded offences of criminal damage. It has been estimated that up to 70% of all crime in the UK is either directly or indirectly drug-related, though this is difficult to verify. Drug-related offences include.

direct offences under the drugs laws

thefts, muggings, etc, to help finance drug habits

vehicle accidents and industrial injuries caused by persons under the influence of drugs

violent clashes, and assassinations, between rival drug gangs

other violent crimes, e.g. date rape, poisoning

Between 1998-99 and 2004-05 the total number of "drug offences", i.e. direct offences under the drugs laws, recorded by the police remained fairly constant. In 2005-06 there were a total of 178,502 drug offences recorded, which represents a significant increase of 23% from the previous year. The increase was largely due to changes in the recording process - specifically an increase in the recording of possession of cannabis offences which coincided with an increase in the number of formal warnings issued for cannabis possession. It is not possible to make comparisons in recorded crime data for England and Wales before and after 1998-99, since significant changes in reporting and recording practices were introduced in April 1998, such as the inclusion of drug possession offences. Further changes occurred in 2002-03 with the inclusion of data from the British Transport Police.

National Long-Term Recorded Crime Trend in "Drug Offences"

Number of



Taken from: Research Development and Statistics (CRCSG), UK Home Office


Further breakdown of this data reveals that the vast majority were drug possession offences, with drug supply and trafficking offences making up most of the remainder. Other drug offences, including unlawful production and permitting premises to be used for unlawful purposes, constituted a very small proportion of the total.

Summary of Recorded Drug Offences in England and Wales in 2005-06

Type of Offence

Number of Offences

Total drug offences


Drug possession offences


Drug trafficking offences


Other drug offences


Taken from: Research Development and Statistics (CRCSG), UK Home Office


The true cost of drug-related crime is very difficult to estimate. The total social and economic cost of drug abuse in the UK has been estimated at around £20 billion per annum, with heroin and cocaine representing 99% of the total cost.

A simple model for assessing the economic cost of drug abuse is given below: It has been estimated that there are currently around 280,000 heroin and crack cocaine dependents living in the UK. Each requires an estimated £20,000 per year to fund their habit. Much of this comes from the sale of stolen goods, whose original value may be typically three-fold higher than its sale value, therefore the total market value of the goods stolen may be up to £60,000 x 280,000, i.e. a total annual cost of £16.8 billion. Added to this of course is the extra financial burden on the criminal justice system, in terms of policing, probation, prison facilities, etc.

Drug-Related Deaths in the UK

It is very difficult to estimate numbers of drug-related deaths in the UK, for many reasons. It is difficult to define the term "drug-related death", and different organisations use different definitions. Furthermore no single organisation collates information on drug-related deaths. In many cases there is no single causative agent, and two or more different drugs may be involved, along with alcohol and possibly other factors, such as medical conditions.

In the widest sense of the term, drug-related deaths may include:

deaths from drug overdose, by accident, suicide or homicide

deaths from accidents while under the influence of drugs or alcohol

murders and manslaughters by people under the influence of drugs or alcohol

deaths unrelated to the presence of drugs in the body

deaths from AIDS among injecting drug users

In view of the above it is clearly impossible to obtain accurate data on the numbers of deaths that may be attributed to individual drugs or groups of drugs, however it is possible to make estimates.

To put the situation into context an estimated 110,000 people die each year in the UK from tobacco-related illnesses, principally lung cancer, respiratory diseases and heart disease. Estimates of alcohol-related deaths vary between 30,000 and 40,000 each year in the UK, whilst paracetamol is responsible for several hundred deaths each year, mainly suicides.

In England and Wales between 1993 and 2004 there were 16,088 deaths related to drug misuse where specific substances were mentioned on the death certificate. Some of this data is tabulated below.

Summary of Drug-Related Deaths in England and Wales between 1993 and 2004

Type of Drug

Number of Deaths

Heroin and morphine






Unspecified opiates










Source: UK Office for National Statistics:


The Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971

It is important that forensic scientists working in the area of drug and alcohol analysis have some knowledge of the relevant legislation in the country that they operate, and in some circumstances a knowledge of international drug legislation. It is clearly impossible to discuss drug legislation in every country here, and this section focuses on UK legislation. Legislation can be an immensely complex and confusing subject, and the philosophies, details and terminology used can vary greatly from one country to another, but there are many parallels. For example drugs laws in most countries separate offences into:


possession with intent to supply


illegal manufacture or cultivation

Drug legislation has a long history in the UK. In 1908 the sale of opium was restricted to persons known to the pharmacist. Cocaine, heroin and morphine came under legal control in 1917, with cannabis, amphetamines and LSD following in 1925, 1964 and 1966, respectively. In 1971 the Misuse of Drugs Act consolidated previous legislation; including the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 and the Dangerous Drugs Acts of 1965 and 1967, thereby bringing all controlled drugs under the same statutory framework.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is the major piece of drugs legislation in the UK. Its aim is to restrict the unauthorised use of certain substances, known as controlled drugs. These include medicinal drugs and also substances with no accepted medical uses. The act defines a series of offences including unlawful possession, unlawful supply, intent to supply, trafficking (import or export). Unlike the Medicines Act, offences under MDA usually involve the general public. To enforce this law the police have special powers to stop, detain and search people on "reasonable suspicion" that they are in possession of a controlled drug. The act draws three important distinctions:

between different types of drugs

between drug possession and drug supply

between different methods of distribution

The act divides drugs into three classes, A, B and C, depending on how "dangerous" they were considered to be at the time of classification. However there is no clear protocol upon which these classifications are based. Drugs are frequently added, removed or re-classified by the Home Secretary:

Class A: heroin, opium, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, etc, plus any Class B drug prepared for administration

Class B: most amphetamines, barbiturates, codeine

Class C: tranquillisers, some amphetamines and anabolic steroids

Alcohol, solvents and tobacco and poppers, e.g. liquid gold, nitrites, are not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 it is an offence:

to unlawfully possess a controlled drug

to possess a controlled drug with intent to supply it to others, usually determined by the quantity or sometimes the variety of drugs found

to unlawfully supply a controlled drug

to allow premises you occupy or manage to be used for the sale or use of drugs

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 it is not an offence

to posses, or even to eat, magic mushrooms, but to prepare them for ingestion, e.g. as a drink, is a Class A offence.

to possess or use tranquillisers, e.g. Valium, Librium, without a prescription. It is a Class C offence, however, to supply them to another person for non-medical use. The police have no powers of arrest for possession of Class C drugs.

Principal Offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971

Type of Offence

Section of the Act

Importation and exportation of controlled drugs

Section 3

Production and supply of controlled drugs

Section 4

Possession of controlled drugs

Section 5

Cultivation of cannabis

Section 6

Permitting premises to be used for the purposes listed

in Sections 3, 4, 5, 6 or 9 of the Act

Section 8

Preparation or smoking of opium

Section 9

Induce the commission of a "corresponding offence" while overseas

Section 20

Maximum penalties under MDA 1971

Type of



MDA Classification of Drug

Class A

Class B

Class C



6 months and/or £2000 fine

3 months and/or £2000 fine

3 months and/or £500 fine


7 years and/or unlimited fine

5 years and/or unlimited fine

2 years and/or unlimited fine

Supply or Trafficking


6 months and/or £2000 fine

6 months and/or £2000 fine

3 months and/or £2000 fine


Life and/or unlimited fine

14 years and/or unlimited fine

5 years and/or unlimited fine

The actual sentence passed will also depend on the actual quantity of drugs involved, any previous criminal record, and the particular circumstances of the offence.

The Misuse of Drugs Act (Regulations) 2001

The Misuse of Drugs Act (Regulations) 2001 supersedes the earlier Misuse of Drugs Act (Regulations) 1985, and sets out may be done with respect to controlled substances. The Regulations effectively define exceptions to the prohibitions on possession, supply, etc, by imposing strict duties relating to record keeping, manufacturing, storage and distribution. The substances are placed into one of five schedules, to take account of their legitimate medical, scientific and industrial uses.

Schedule 1: LSD, ecstasy, mescaline, etc

Schedule 2: heroin, cocaine, methadone, etc

Schedule 3: mainly barbiturates and amphetamines

Schedule 4: mainly benzodiazepines and steroids

Schedule 5: mainly medicinal preparations containing higher schedule drugs

Compounds of closely analogous molecular structures to one of the above substances, e.g. stereoisomers, derivatives or salts, are usually placed in the same schedule

Schedule 1 drugs are not available for normal medical uses, and can only be prescribed by doctors, or used for scientific research, with a Home Office licence.

Schedule 2 to 5 drugs are available for normal medical uses, mostly as prescription-only medicines, though some can be bought over the pharmacy counter, e.g. dilute preparations such as codeine-based cough suppressants. They can also be supplied or possessed by certain organisations, e.g. university departments, hospitals, without a licence.

Further information and statistics on the Misuse of Drugs Act, and other drug-related legislation in the UK can be found on the Oracle Law website, at: http://www.oraclelaw.co.uk

The Road Traffic Act, 1988

Under this act it is an offence to drive, to attempt to drive, or to be in charge of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place whilst "unfit to drive through drink or drugs", including prescribed drugs and solvents.

The act defines limits for blood, breath and urine alcohol (i.e. ethanol or ethyl alcohol but referred to here as "alcohol") content, but none exist for other drugs and convictions for these are rare, since a detailed medical examination would be required in most cases to ascertain fitness to drive.

The current limits are:

breath: 35 g per 100 mL

blood: 80 mg per 100 mL

urine: 107 mg per 100 mL

Studies have shown that the depressive effect of alcohol on the central nervous system is directly related to the level of alcohol in the blood. This is not necessarily true of other drugs, such as amphetamines.

Section 4 of the RTA details the major alcohol-related offences. In particular:

Section 4i: It is an offence to drive, to attempt to drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place whilst unfit to drive through drink or drugs.

Section 4ii: It is an offence to be in charge of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place whilst unfit to drive through drink or drugs. This section defines what is meant by "in charge of" a vehicle. Issues include whether the suspect is actually sitting in the driver's seat, and whether the keys are actually in the ignition.

Section 4vi: This section makes provision for the police officer to request that the suspect provides a breath sample for roadside breath analysis.

Section 4vii: This section outlines the legal obligations of the suspect with respect to provision of samples of breath, blood and/or urine for confirmatory analysis.

Section 4xi: This section defines the prescribed limits for alcohol in the breath, blood and urine.

Other Drug-Related Legislation

The Medicines Act, 1968

This act governs the manufacture and supply of all medicinal products, and its enforcement rarely affects the general public. It divides drugs into three categories:

Prescription Only Medicines must be prescribed by a doctor and supplied by a registered pharmacist, e.g. diazepam, methadone

Pharmacy Medicines can be sold without a prescription, but only by a registered pharmacist, e.g. pseudoephedrine

General Sales List Medicines can be sold without a prescription in any shop, e.g. aspirin, paracetamol, but certain restrictions, e.g. advertising labelling, apply

Under the Medicines Act 1968 it is an offence to supply prescribed medicines for non-medical use without a licence.

Under the Medicines Act 1968 it is not an offence to possess or use prescribed medicines without a prescription.

The Licensing Act 1968

This act controls the manufacture, sale, distribution and purchase of alcohol. It includes:

different licences governing the sale of alcohol, such as on-licences, off-licences and restaurant licences

restricted times during which alcohol may be sold and consumed

complex laws governing the age at which a person may drink alcohol

Under the Licensing Act 1968 it is an offence:

to knowingly sell alcohol on licensed premises to a person aged under 18

to give alcohol to a child under 5 years

for persons aged under 18 to purchase alcohol at licensed premises

for persons aged under 18 to consume alcohol in a public house

Under the Licensing Act 1968 it is not an offence:

for persons aged under 18 to possess alcohol

for persons aged under 18 to consume alcohol away from licensed premises

for persons aged over 16 to consume alcohol in a public house or restaurant whilst having a meal

The Intoxicating Substances Supply Act, 1985

This act controls the sale and distribution of alcohol and solvents, including aerosol propellants, volatile fuels and adhesives. These are not controlled under the MDA. Shop owners are sometimes prosecuted under this act, however the legislation regarding the sale of solvents is somewhat vague, and there have been relatively few prosecutions since proof of guilt is often difficult to establish. The maximum penalty is 6 months imprisonment and/or a £2000 fine. "Glue sniffing" or "solvent abuse" is responsible for between 70 and 100 deaths each year in the UK.

Under the Intoxicating Substances Supply Act 1985 it is an offence for shop staff to knowingly sell solvents, glues or aerosols to persons aged under 18 if they suspect that the substances may be misused.

Under the Intoxicating Substances Supply Act 1985 it is not an offence for persons aged under 18 to buy, or to possess, solvents, glues or aerosols.

The Young Persons Act

This act outlines the obligations of young persons, and also shop owners and staff, with respect to the sale, purchase, possession, etc, of tobacco and cigarettes.

Under the Young Persons Act it is an offence for shop staff to sell tobacco or cigarettes to persons apparently under the age of 16.

Under the Young Persons Act it is not an offence for persons aged under 16 to purchase, to possess, or to smoke tobacco or cigarettes.

The Drug Trafficking Act 1994

This act gives greater sentencing powers to the crown courts, to facilitate confiscation of the profits of drug trafficking.

The Proceeds of Crime Act 1995

This act serves to impose the harshest possible sanctions against people found guilty of trafficking offences. It makes further provision for the recovery of the proceeds of criminal conduct, and the enforcement of overseas forfeiture and restraint orders.

The Customs and Excise Act, 1996

This act, along with the MDA, penalises the unauthorised import or export of controlled drugs.

International Drug Legislation

Some drugs are controlled under international agreement through the UN Division of Narcotics. Details are set out in three treaties:

the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961

the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971

the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988