Drug runners and small–scale dealers could escape prison even if caught with a 50–gram bag of cocaine or heroin or dozens of Ecstasy pills, under planned new guidance for courts.
Offenders who only play a “subordinate” role in drug gangs may be given a community order if found supplying “small” quantities of drugs.
But under the proposed guideline from the Sentencing Council, that would include up to 50 grams of cocaine – or 50 “wraps” – up to a kilo of cannabis or 99 Ecstasy tablets.
It is the first time all courts in England and Wales would be handed a specific chart setting out how the role and quantity of drugs should impact on sentencing.
So-called “drug mules” are also expected to be handed shorter sentences after the Council, the official body that guides courts on sentencing, warned they can be forced or tricked in to the crime.
Those convicted of possession offences may also avoid prison even if found with 10g of cocaine or heroin, or 20 Ecstasy pills.
The proposals will fuel concerns that courts will be too soft on drug offenders and those who use illegal substances.
Police rank and file leaders last night described the proposals as “bizarre”
The guidelines maintain tough penalties for drug barons and those running large scale operations and ensure custody for street dealers and others who sell directly to the public.
However, police rank and file leaders last night described the proposals as “bizarre” and warned established dealers caught with relatively large quantities of drugs could now claim to be “runners” to avoid custody.
Last week, a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy declared that the war on drugs has failed.
The leading peers said that despite governments worldwide drawing up tough laws against dealers and users over the past 50 years, and spending vast amounts of money on tackling the problem, narcotics have become far more easily accessible while criminals have profited greatly from selling them.
The Sentencing Council faced criticism earlier this month when it published separate guidelines on assault offences that could see more than 4,600 fewer offenders go to prison each year.
Yesterday it published, for the first time, draft guidance for all magistrates and crown courts on how to sentence for drug-related offences.
It tells judges to consider the role the offender plays in the criminal enterprise and suggests softer penalties for those who carry out a “subordinate role” and who do not make a profit from the drugs they supply.
Such individuals include “runners”, those involved under pressure or people who supply to their friends for no personal gain.
In cases where such people are then found with a quantity of drugs that falls in to the “small” category, the sentencing range for a judge is between a community order and six months in prison.
The document stressed however that those who supply directly to drug users for a profit, such as street dealers, are considered to have a leading role in offending and will receive a custodial sentence.
Simon Reed, vice chairman of the Police Federation, said: “It’s bizarre.
“Without runners and these low end dealers it is far harder to distribute the drugs.
“Gangs rely on those at the low end and if we are removing the deterrent then the situation is going to get worse.
“We are still talking about an awful lot of drugs here and you could find those caught denying they are dealers and just say they are runners.”
Drug mules who are bring drugs in to the country but have been coerced in to it or tricked should also be shown leniency although they could expect custody.
They could also be given mitigation if their attempt to conceal the drugs “lacked sophistication”, the document suggested.
The Sentencing Council insisted that drug barons playing a leading role in large scale offences such as smuggling and supply will continue to face long prison terms.
Lord Justice Leveson, chairman of the Council, said: “We want to ensure that those who are responsible for the most serious drug crime receive the longest sentences and that punishments overall are in proportion to the offender’s role and the amount of drugs involved.”
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