27 January 2021
New sentencing guidelines for drug offences published
The Sentencing Council has today published revised sentencing guidelines for sentencing offenders convicted of drugs to respond to the changing nature of offending following consultation.
Changes in offending include a rise in the exploitation of vulnerable people, an increase in drug purity and new drugs in the market. The new guidelines, which will come into effect on 1 April 2021, update the guidelines published in 2012 and apply to adult offenders.
The new guidelines will provide, judges and magistrates in England and Wales with updated sentencing guidelines for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971 to reflect modern drug offending and new guidelines for offences created by the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) 2016 to bring clarity and transparency around the sentencing process for drug offences.
Research conducted by the Council in preparation for producing the guidelines indicated that there are disparities in sentence outcomes for some drug offences associated with ethnicity and sex. The Council has taken measures in the guidelines to address this, including drawing sentencers’ attention to evidence of sentencing disparities in specific offences as an integral part the sentencing process.
The Council is committed to investigating apparent disparity in sentencing outcomes further. As part of this work the Council has convened an internal working group to consider what further steps might be taken in this area and is in the process of commissioning a review of how its guidelines operate to help identify any areas for further work.
The MDA offences of importation, production and supply of controlled drugs carry the highest sentences – up to a statutory maximum of life imprisonment for Class A drugs (e.g. heroin/ecstasy/LSD) and a statutory maximum of 14 years for Class B drugs (e.g. amphetamines/cannabis/ketamine) based on quantity and the role of the offender.
New and more powerful drugs have also been brought onto the market over recent years, including various kinds of “Spice”, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil. The new MDA guidelines provide for such drugs. In the assessment of harm, the quantity of some drugs has been updated to reflect the change in purity (ecstasy) and yield (cannabis) of the drugs since the 2012 guidelines.
The PSA offences are similar to those under the MDA 1971 and, for the offences of trafficking, supplying or producing illegal drugs, the same approach used to assess culpability for the MDA offences will be applied. Offences under PSA carry up to seven years in custody.
The main difference in sentencing between MDA and PSA offences is in relation to harm. Unlike MDA offences, there is no list in the PSA of psychoactive substances controlled under the act. Rather, a psychoactive substance is defined by its effect on the user, and the intention of the offender in supplying, importing or producing it. The guidelines provide an approach for sentencers to use in assessing harm of these wide-ranging substances.