Revised drug sentencing guidelines proposed to reflect changes in offending

Plans to revise sentencing guidelines for drugs offences in England and Wales were published for consultation today by the Sentencing Council, following significant change in the nature of offending, the increased seriousness of the offences, emerging drugs and new offences in psychoactive substances.

The Council is proposing to revise five of the current drug offences guidelines, which came into force in 2012 and cover offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971 to bring them up to date with modern drug offending, and to introduce four guidelines for new offences created by the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) 2016.

The Council is inviting views from judges, magistrates and the public on the proposed changes. The consultation is open until 7 April 2020.

Launching the consultation, Sentencing Council Chairman Lord Justice Holroyde said;

“Drug offending affects a large cross-section of society; from people voluntarily involved in the trade including dealers and users, to families and the community who often have to deal with the aftermath, and it has to be taken seriously.

“The nature of offending is also changing and we are seeing more vulnerable people including children being exploited either through grooming or coercion. The proposed guidelines will provide guidance for courts and clear information for victims, witnesses and the public on how drug offenders are sentenced.”

The main changes being proposed for the current guidelines apply to the offences of importation/exportation, supply/possession with intent to supply, and production/cultivation of drugs created under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971.

The proposed changes reflect the evolving nature of offending, including the rising exploitation of children and vulnerable people (so-called “clean skins”) in county lines operations to transport drugs from city hubs to smaller towns and rural areas, and the increasing use of dedicated phone lines and the internet, including the dark web.

The draft guidelines introduce new culpability factors for offenders in a leading role in drug related activities, including:

  • Exploitation of children and/or vulnerable persons to assist in drug-related activity
  • Involving an innocent agent for importation or exportation of drugs
  • Exercising control over the home of another person for the supply and production of drugs.

A less-common offence under the MDA 1971 is the offence of permitting your premises to be used for drug dealing or drug related activity. The revised guideline for this offence introduces a high culpability factor where a child or vulnerable person is used to deal drugs from their premises – a practice known as “cuckooing”. Offenders who are involved in drug related activity due to coercion or intimidation or whose vulnerability has been exploited will face lower sentence levels.

The new offences brought in by the PSA 2016 are similar to offences under the MDA 1971 and, for the offences of importation/exportation, supplying/possession with intent to supply, and production of drugs, the Council proposes to use the same approach to assess culpability as proposed for the MDA offences.

New and more powerful drugs are also being brought onto the market, including purer forms of existing drugs, various kinds of “Spice”, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil. Some of these newer substances are covered by offences under the PSA 2016, for which there are currently no sentencing guidelines. The Council’s proposed guidelines would assist the courts in sentencing these offences.