Green pharmacy cross

What is legal regulation?

Legally regulating drugs establishes formal controls over their production, availability, and use. This includes controls on price, taxation, marketing, quality, and implementing age restrictions. Each drug will be regulated based on an assessment of the risks it presents with different levels of restriction - ranging from very lightly-regulated sale in shops to supply by prescription only. None of these regulatory controls are possible while drugs remain in the illegal market.

This approach allows for nuanced, responsive and appropriate regulations to be applied; ensuring supply is safe, while preventing a market free-for-all. Each drug (including different preparations) would be regulated based on a detailed assessment of the risks it presents. We have identified five broad types of regulation through which currently illegal drugs could be supplied in future.

Five systems of control

Unlicensed sales

For products with very low risk (such as caffeine) sale would not require a licence. However, products would be subject to expected regulations around quality, labelling etc. This would be appropriate for very mild stimulants such as coca tea.

Licences for consumption on the premises

This is the system currently applied to alcohol sold in pubs and bars, where the product is consumed at the place of purchase. Local licensing authorities have the power to issue licences and apply conditions (such as requirements around hours of sale, server training and so forth).

Licences for consumption off the premises

This is the system used for alcohol 'off' licences and tobacco sales (in the UK retailers instead require an economic operators ID to sell tobacco). Under this system, retailers need to acquire a licence for sale from their local authority - again, with conditions attached (such as how products are displayed). This is similar to the system for cannabis retail in parts of the United States and Canada.

A key issue in licensing sales is whether retailers (and wholesalers) should be private companies or owned by the state. State-owned retail is not unusual: alcohol outlets in many parts of Canada, for example, are owned by the state.

Specialist pharmacists

For higher-risk products, we recommend that sale is limited to specialist pharmacy-style outlets, with well-trained staff and tight restrictions on availability, product display etc. This is the model we recommend for the sale of most stimulant drugs, such as powder cocaine and MDMA. In the case of stimulants, we also recommend that outlets are state-owned, as this is the best way to prevent excessive marketing and profit-driven sales.


The prescription-only model is the most tightly controlled drug supply model currently in operation. Under this model, drugs are prescribed to a named user by a qualified and licensed medical practitioner. They are dispensed by a licensed practitioner or pharmacist from a licensed pharmacy or other designated outlet.

Our proposals in detail

We have set our our proposals for a tiered licensing system in a number of books and reports.


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