24 Jan 2012

Drugs mules could avoid jail under new guidelines

Street dealers caught with heroin, cocaine or thousands of pounds worth of cannabis could avoid jail under new guidelines for judges which come into force in February.

Sentencing guidelines for class c drug smuggling are to be changed (Reuters)

Offenders who play a lesser role in gangs could be handed community sentences when they come before the courts. This could include low-level dealers caught with 6kg of cocaine, which could sell for tens of thousands of pounds, and some heroin and cocaine dealers deemed to have played only a minimal role.

So-called drug mules, who bring narcotics into the country and are often exploited by organised criminals, could also get a community sentence if caught with relatively small amounts of class C drugs such as ketamine or GHB.

Under the new guidelines, from the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, drug mules – often women forced or tricked into the crime – could face a starting point of six years if deemed to be playing a “lesser role” in bringing in up to 1kg of heroin or cocaine.

But this could increase to 11 years if, instead of playing a lesser role, the offender was one of the leading figures, perhaps organising the crime or making substantial profits.


As of June 2010, 1,549 of the 11,071 people in prison for drug offences were being held on charges of unlawful import or export, Ministry of Justice figures showed.

Some 15 per cent of women in prison in England and Wales are foreign nationals, with most women jailed for drugs importation coming from Nigeria, Jamaica and South Africa, the Prison Reform Trust campaign group said.

We have developed this guideline to ensure there is effective guidance for sentencers and clear information for victims, witnesses and the public on how drug offenders are sentenced. Lord Justice Hughes

But the Sentencing Council, which sets the guidelines for judges, said those used to bring class A drugs into the UK, a more typical offence, would still face jail, but were likely to serve less time behind bars than at the moment.

And offenders who were employed by someone else to import or export drugs regularly for profit would face even tougher sentences, up to the maximum of life in prison.

The national drugs centre Release, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and the Transnational Institute of Policy Studies (TNI) said the guidelines would see the starting point for drug mules reduced from 10 years to six years in most cases.

It is the first time all courts in England and Wales have been given a comprehensive guideline setting out how the role of the offender and the quantity of drugs should influence sentencing.


Tougher sentences could also be handed down to key players guilty of producing drugs on a large scale. And for the first time, anyone dealing to children or teenagers under 18 would also face tougher treatment by judges.

Lord Justice Hughes, the council’s deputy chairman, said: “Drug offending has to be taken seriously. Drug abuse underlies a huge volume of acquisitive and violent crime and dealing can blight communities.

“Offending and offenders vary widely so we have developed this guideline to ensure there is effective guidance for sentencers and clear information for victims, witnesses and the public on how drug offenders are sentenced.”

He added: “Drug dealers can expect substantial jail sentences.”

The new rules have been broadly welcomed by drugs and prison campaigners.