Drugs Offences – Including Importation, Possession, and Production
In the last century, the law on drugs has completely changed. In the 19th century Britain went to war twice with China to preserve the British right to trade in Opium. Nowadays in the UK, all major recreational drugs except Alcohol and Nicotine are illegal, Alcohol and nicotine are of course taxed heavily by the state.
However, estimates of number of regular drug users in the UK range between a quarter of a million and two million every week. This means that drugs offences are often not limited to people that one would usually class as a ‘criminal’.
Even larger scale offences such as Importation can be committed by individuals who are otherwise apparently respectable. Meanwhile, offences relating to producing drugs are often committed by people in immigrant communities, who are working illegally, and often the victims of people trafficking.
We have included a basic guide to the common drugs offences below, and have also included three case studies of recent cases to help in understanding how these cases are fought. These offences are complex. If you are accused of any of these crimes, we recommend taking legal advice.
Any criminal lawyer can claim to have expertise in different types of criminal case. We have included here some case studies to give some idea of how we prepare our cases.
Case Study 1
Our client was charged with possession of heroin with a street value of £8,000 and several grams of cocaine. This was found inside his furniture in his flat. With a detailed investigation of fingerprint and DNA evidence relating to the furniture, we were able to show that others had been in close contact with the area where the drugs were found. We were also able to show that other people had access to the same flat.
Verdict | Not Guilty
Case Study 2
Our client was charged as a result of the seizure of £1 million worth of ecstasy tablets at an airport. He was one of 6 defendants in this case. Extensive telephone mapping evidence (cell site analysis) linked our client to the other defendants, and billing records showed that he had been in contact with them before and after the importation.
The other five defendants were all represented by different solicitors firms. They were all found guilty at the trial. They all received sentences from nine to thirteen years in prison.
Verdict | Not Guilty
Case Study 3
Our client was a 14 year old girl arrested at Manchester Airport with two suitcases full of heroin (a street value of £1 million). She was arrested and Mary Monson took on her case. She was charged with importation. In the course of this case, Social Services tried several times to deny Mary Monson access to her client, and even attempted to get her off the case. However, Mary continued to visit her regularly, slowly gaining her trust to prepare a defence. After 3 months, after sustained pressure from us, the prosecution dropped the charges.
Verdict | Not Guilty
For further info see the article ‘Girl, 13, cleared in £1m heroin case’
Much of the law on drugs is contained in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Parts of it are explained below, but drugs cases are complicated. If you need help or advice because you or a family member has been charged, we recommend you getting in touch.
It is an offence to even possess most banned substances, and the level of seriousness depends on two main factors:
- The type of substance
- The purpose of the defendant’s involvement with the substance
The Type of Substance
As most people are aware, illegal drugs broadly fall into three categories or classes – A, B, and C, with A viewed most seriously.
- Examples of class A drugs include Ecstasy, Cocaine and Heroin.
- Examples of class B drugs include cannabis and amphetamines such as speed.
- Examples of class C drugs include some tranquilisers and also anabolic steroids.
Purpose of the Defendant’s Involvement with the Substance
The second important factor when deciding the seriousness of a charge is the nature of the involvement. This means that possession is not very serious, but possession with intent to supply is serious.
Offences involving the importation, exportation, or production of any type of illegal substance is serious, and can result in a custodial sentence of more than 10 years.
Possession and Possession with Intent to Supply
If a person is charged with straight possession of a substance, even if it is a class A substance, then a prison sentence is very unlikely even if they are convicted after a trial. If they are charged with possession with intent to supply, then the case can only be dealt with in the Crown Court, and a prison sentence is very likely if they are found guilty or even of they plead guilty early on. Possession with intent to supply basically means drug dealing, and can range from a few small bags of cannabis, to several suitcases of cocaine.
The length of sentence will depend on several factors, such as the quantity and strength of drugs, whether the dealing is party of a larger operation etc.
Possession with intent to supply class A drugs carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, although sentences over 10 years are rare.
Class B and C drug dealing convictions usually result in a much shorter prison sentence, although the maximum is 14 years.
Factors which can reduce sentence include:
- Whether dealing has been done to fund a drug habit
- Whether there has been pressure from other dealers to deal for them (sometimes called duress). This is very difficult to use as a defence to escape a guilty verdict, but can help in sentence.
- Cooperation with the police
- An early guilty plea
- The age of the offender
Evidence in Possession with Intent to Supply Cases
The classic defence in many drug supply cases is the defence of personal use. The drugs that have been found were to be consumed only by the defendant.
The prosecution might seek to put forward evidence which they say shows that the use is not only personal.
This might include:
- A large amount of drugs
- Large quantities of unexplained cash
- Lists of names with amounts of money written next to them (could show customer accounts)
- Materials for packaging large amounts to smaller amounts, such as wraps or ‘snap’ bags
- Scales or other items used in the preparation or sale of drugs
Importation, Exportation and Production
These offences are viewed as very serious because they usually involve large quantities of drugs and career drug dealers who sometimes make millions of pounds.
They are also treated very seriously because they are seen to be vital to the whole illegal drug trade. Without producers and large scale suppliers, the small time dealers do not have access to drugs to deal on the street.
Evidence in Importation / Exportation Cases
In importation cases, as with many drugs cases, mobile phone evidence is particularly important. Where conspiracy is alleged by the prosecution, defendants have to be linked together for the charge to be made out, and phone traffic between individuals can show this, and also theoretically bring new defendants into the equation. So called ‘cell-site analysis’ can also be used to show approximate locations of defendants at certain times, although this evidence can sometimes be challenged. (For more information, see our section on Organised Crime / Conspiracy.)
Sat Nav units in cars can even sometimes be used to trace the whereabouts of defendants. This area of forensic science is a new and expanding and is not known to most solicitors.
Forensic evidence relating to the defendants, such as fingerprints, DNA, and forensic analysis of clothes and body, is often important in drugs cases.
With fingerprint and DNA evidence, technical challenges are often difficult, although not always impossible. The best way to attack such evidence is often on the basis that the object in question was handled innocently, without knowledge, or even that an object found with drugs or at the scene of a drug production operation could have been moved.
Forensic analysis of clothing and hands or other body parts is often not an exact science, as was displayed with the scandal of the Maguire Seven, who were wrongfully convicted for being involved with constructing and detonating IRA bombs, when the nitro-glycerine that was on their hands could have passed innocently from, for example, a contaminated hand-towel.
Traces of substances such as cocaine can often be found on banknotes, but this does not necessarily mean that the holder of the money has been in direct contact with the substance. A survey conducted in 1999 by Mass Spec Analytical (MSA), based in Bristol, showed that 99% of a sample of 500 used London banknotes had traces of cocaine.
Production of drugs cases
These cases are viewed with the utmost severity by courts, as they can not only involve large scale operations, but also often employ illegal immigrants. The immigrants themselves are often the ones who face prosecution, when they are often victims themselves, and the owners of drugs factories, notably for cannabis often evade the police.
The law makes distinctions between different levels of involvement in such cases, from “workers”, who receive lighter sentences, and supervisors, or people in authority over the operation, who can face long periods of custody.
Issues in drugs production cases can be complex, and often involve analysis of property and financial records, forensic evidence, and also sometimes involve immigration issues not usually encountered by criminal solicitors.
Mary Monson Solicitors recently acted in a case involving 12 defendants accused of producing cannabis, in which 20 properties were raided. The investigation involved over 400 officers.
For further info on the above case see Twelve charged in cannabis raids
If you or anyone close to you has been accused of any of the above drug related offences, we are happy to advise over the phone with no obligation.
If you would like to speak to one of our criminal solicitors regarding drug offences, please contact us on freephone 0808 155 4870 and ask to speak to a criminal defence lawyer in our London, Manchester, Salford or Birmingham offices.