What is a controlled medicine (drug)?

Some prescription medicines are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs legislation. These medicines are called controlled medicines or controlled drugs. Examples include:

  • morphine
  • pethidine
  • methadone

Legal controls

Stricter legal controls apply to controlled medicines to prevent them:

  • being misused
  • being obtained illegally
  • causing harm

For example, these legal controls govern how controlled medicines may be:

  • stored
  • produced
  • supplied
  • prescribed

Controlled medicines are classified (by law) based on their benefit when used in medical treatment and their harm if misused

The Misuse of Drugs regulations include five schedules that classify all controlled medicines and drugs. Schedule 1 has the highest level of control, but drugs in this group are virtually never used in medicines. Schedule 5 has a much lower level of control.

How does this affect me?

When you collect a Schedule 2-controlled medicine, such as morphine or pethidine, your pharmacist will ask for proof of your identity, such as:

  • your driving licence
  • your passport

You’ll also be asked to sign the back of your prescription, to confirm that you’ve received the medicine.

If you are collecting 'controlled medication' for someone else, you are legally required to show the pharmacist proof of your identity if asked. To collect certain medicines, a letter from the patient authorising you as their representative is required. In these cases, the pharmacist will let you know. 

To collect a Schedule 3-controlled medicine, such as flunitrazepam, you just need to sign the back of the prescription.

If you’re prescribed a controlled medicine, it’s particularly important that you:

  • store your medicine properly and safely at home
  • keep your medicine out of the sight and reach of children
  • never give your medicine to anyone else

Special requirements apply to destroying controlled medicines, so return any unused controlled medicines to your pharmacist who will dispose of them.

Who can prescribe controlled medicines?

Doctors and dentists can prescribe all controlled medicines to treat illness or injury. However, doctors must hold a licence from the Home Office to prescribe controlled medicines to treat addiction.

Specially trained nurses can prescribe some controlled medicines for specific conditions, such as pain relief in palliative care but cannot prescribe controlled drugs for treating addiction, such has diamorpine and cocaine.

Midwives may use a limited range of controlled medicines such as morphine, and pethidine, for example, to relieve pain during childbirth.

Other healthcare professionals, including nurses and pharmacists, may prescribe controlled medicines. Their level of training in prescribing determines the range of controlled medicines they can prescribe and under what circumstances.

Prescriptions for controlled medicines

Prescriptions for controlled medicines in Schedules 2, 3 and 4 are valid for only 28 days.

Prescriptions for Schedule 2 and 3 controlled medicines (except temazepam) must include specific details about the medicine, such as:

  • its name and what form it’s in
  • strength and dose
  • total quantity or number of doses, shown in both words and figures

Prescriptions for temazepam and Schedule 4 and 5 controlled medicines are exempt from these requirements.

Pharmacists must record prescriptions for controlled medicines in a special register. Before supplying the medicine, they must check that the prescription is correctly written. If it’s not, it may need to be rewritten by the prescriber.

Taking controlled medicines abroad

For information about taking controlled medicines abroad, see Can I take controlled medicines abroad?

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 12/11/2013

Next review due: 11/11/2015