The size of the financial penalties imposed for being caught with the drug, as well as for possession of heroin, have fallen sharply in the last 10 years, prompting opposition politicians to voice concerns about the leniency of the sentencing system.
In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, the average fine for criminals convicted of possessing crack cocaine was £38.33 – less than a standard £60 parking fine or speeding ticket, and less than a quarter of the average fine in 1997, which was £180. Over the same ten year period, fines for possession of heroin have more than halved, to just £65.83. Fines for cocaine possession also fell, from £624.50 to £326.05, although those for offenders caught with ecstasy increased, from £209.33 to £678.57.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat’s home affairs spokesman, who obtained the data following a parliamentary question, said: “Heroin and crack cocaine destroy lives and fines smaller than a parking ticket are no deterrent.”
He said a change in the way drug offenders were dealt with was needed.
“Fining addicts can boomerang because crime is often their primary source of income, and more fines may mean more crime,” he added.
“Instead of fines, we need to treat addicts focusing on community sentences and treatment orders that are regularly reviewed to ensure that they reform.”
The maximum penalty for possessing class A drugs, such as heroin, crack cocaine, cocaine and ecstasy, is seven years in jail or an unlimited fine.
However, in 2007, when police caught criminals with class A drugs almost 25,000 times, nearly half of all offenders received a caution and were not taken to court.
Just 3.5 percent of those found with the most dangerous drugs were sent to prison. Around one in five were fined, one in ten were given an absolute or conditional discharge, and one in seven received a community penalty.
Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, said: “It is deeply disturbing that you can be fined more for a parking ticket than for possession of Class A drugs. What kind of message is the Government sending about its priorities, and the blight of drugs in our society?
“We need a clear, consistent and robust approach to drugs – in terms of both law enforcement and rehabilitation.”
Earlier this year the Sentencing Advisory Panel launched a public consultation on punishments for drugs offences. It is due to publish initial advice early next year which could result in changes to the guidance issued to judges and police forces.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the courts. Crack cocaine, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy are illegal, and their maximum sentences for possession are a prison sentence.”
By Rebecca Lefort
November 1, 2009