New guideline for drug offences: Effective changes or ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic’?

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

New guidelines for dealing with drug offences, released by the Sentencing Council, came into force today.

According to the final document, coercion into drug dealing, vulnerability and exploitation will now be taken into account when sentencing drug offenders. ‘Drug mules’ might be given community sentences depending on the role they played in the supply chain.

The new guideline also foresees more severe sentences for dealers selling drugs to children under the age of 18. Street dealers selling A class drugs for profit can expect a custodial sentence from four and a half years to 16 years.

The document, published after 12-week consultation with members of the public, criminal justice professionals and interested parties, recognises community orders as an alternative to prison for drug addicts and those coerced into smuggling small amounts of class C drugs.

The likely outcome of the new guideline is longer sentences for large-scale production offences and reduced ones for drug mules, who are often exploited.

Chief Constable Tim Hollis from the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “The Council has clearly given a good deal of consideration to the new guidelines and has produced a document which provides the police and our criminal justice partners with consistent guidance yet still provides the court with flexibility to deal with each case on its own merits where appropriate.”

The guideline applies to all offenders aged 18 and over and all drugs from class A to C and covers the most common offences including importation, production, supply, permitting premises to be used for drug offences and possession.

Deputy Chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Hughes, said: “Drug offending has to be taken seriously. Drug abuse underlies a huge volume of acquisitive and violent crime, and dealing can blight communities.

“Offending and offenders vary widely, so we have developed this guideline to ensure there is effective guidance for sentencers and clear information for victims, witnesses and the public on how drug offenders are sentenced.”

DrugScope that participated in the consultation process welcomed aspects of the guidelines. Issues such as disproportionate sentencing of vulnerable offenders and drug mules, particularly women coerced or intimidated into trafficking drugs, have been ‘at least partly’ addressed by the guidelines.

But while many see this as a step forward, critics regarded it as a missed opportunity for a wider revision of the criminal justice system.

Michael Linnell from Manchester-based Lifeline Project questions the very fundaments of the system: “Trying to look sensibly at something that is fundamentally flawed is the problem. While I can understand the principle behind giving someone who has a smaller amount of drugs lesser prison sentence, I believe that the whole principle of dealing with the law, dealing with drugs through the law, is fundamentally flawed.”

“I think the whole position of the drug law is fundamentally flawed. It does not work. It does not work successfully as a deterrent. If you stop one drug in supply, another one pops up. The situation is really a crisis,” Mr Linnell said.

Even earlier the law has tried to differentiate between possession and possession with intent to supply, between personal use and supply and what the average amount of use is. According to Mr Linnell, the new guidelines do not introduce anything particularly new and progressive.

“I understand what they are trying to do with this. It makes sense to give people another chance and there are obviously huge differences in the level of drug dealing that takes place. But this distinction already happens.

“We already have complicated laws that deal with both the assets of people or amount of drugs and the length of the sentence. The length of the sentence is dependent on the value of the drugs and the profit that you could possibly make of it,” he explains.

Another questionable aspect is whether sending people to prison is a solution to drug abuse and drug dealing, and especially if it helps in reducing harm. Home Office research shows that due to the clampdown of cannabis in prisons, a number of people cited they first picked up heroine habit in jail.

“I don’t think you can solve this problem by criminal justice means. You can’t solve it by sending people to prison, it is simply not a solution. We know for well that prison is not the ideal place to stay away from crime. We know for well the prison is not the ideal place to stay away from drugs,” Mr Linnell said.

Despite its appreciation for certain aspects of the new guidelines, DrugScope also joins Mr Linnell in questioning whether using the criminal justice system is an apt approach to reducing drug-related harm to individuals.

A wide range of personal circumstances often add to the complexity – circumstances that law and guidelines do not account for, such as sex abuse, homelessness, unemployment, mental or physical illness.

These are left to the judge’s discretion on individual basis, say DrugScope. Therefore, despite the detailed, comprehensive and definitive new guidelines that now consider victims of drug dealing, it will be judges’ own discretion that individual cases will reply on for a fair trial.

“It is much more complicated that giving bad dealers longer sentences and good dealers shorter sentences. Addressing the fundamentals of the justice system is the key. The rest of it is rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic,” said Mr Linnell.

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