If caught with drugs

"What have we got here, then?" If you've been caught with illegal drugs you're probably scared stiff about what's going to happen to you. We explain the UK’s different drug laws.

Boy looks worried with police officer in background

This article is about the UK drug laws only.

Get some help

If you’ve been caught with drugs you need to get legal help fast. If you can’t afford a lawyer, look into whether you qualify for legal aid. Release, a drugs law charity, can also give you expert and detailed advice about your situation. They have a helpline number you can call on 020 7324 2989, or email them at [email protected]

I want to know what’s going to happen to me

We cannot tell you exactly what’s going to happen to you. Every drugs case is different and the outcome will depend on a number of factors – that’s why it’s really important to get professional advice.

But we can tell you what might happen to you, based on our understanding of current drugs penalties. If you want a rough idea, read on.

I’ve been caught in possession of drugs

If you’ve been caught with drugs – but the police don’t think you were selling them on or giving them to your mates – then you’re likely to face charges of possession. How serious this is depends initially on what class drug it was and other factors, such as the amount and whether you’ve got any previous convictions.

What counts as ‘possession’?

If any amount of illegal drug is found on you (like in your pocket, your bag, or in your car) it counts as possession.

What if it’s my first offence?

If it’s only a small amount for personal use then sentencing guidelines suggest you’ll most likely only get a formal caution, even for class A drugs. Although a caution isn’t a conviction, it will stay on your criminal record forever.

However, you may still be charged. If it’s your first offence, the court may give you an absolute or conditional discharge, which means no jail time, but a permanent criminal record. And if you’re caught again after this, things get much more serious.

What if I’m caught in possession of cannabis?

The law around cannabis is a bit different. For more information, read our cannabis article here.

What if I’m caught with a large/tiny amount of drugs?

There’s no set amount of drugs that define whether the police should prosecute or caution you. It’s all down to individual cases. However, if you’re only caught with a tiny amount of drugs and it’s your first offence, you’ll most likely get a caution.

If you’re found with a large amount of drugs, and if the drug is a more serious Class A drug, you’re likely to face criminal charges.

What if I’ve been caught with drugs before?

If this isn’t your first offence you can sometimes get ‘lucky’ and just get another caution. However, it’s more likely you’ll be formally charged with possession – especially if you were found with a large amount of drugs, or were caught before recently.

What is the penalty for possession?

You could go to prison for a few weeks or months – harsh, but it does happen. The sentence is worse if you were caught with drugs near a school or in prison.

What’s the worst that can happen to me for possession?

The maximum sentence for possession of a Class A drug is seven years in prison and a fine. For a Class B drug it’s five years and a fine, and for Class C it’s two years and a fine.

It’s worth mentioning that maximum sentences are very rarely given; they’re just used as guidelines. The court will decide how serious the offence and sentence is, and you can get a lower sentence if you plead guilty early in the process.

What if I’m caught in possession of a ‘legal high’?

It’s not an offence to possess legal highs, but the police do have the power to take it from you and destroy it.

In May 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force. This act doesn’t replace the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), but it makes it an offence to produce or supply legal highs.

I’ve been caught with possession and intent to supply drugs

Things get much heavier if you’re caught supplying drugs to others, or even if the police suspect the drugs weren’t just for you. If you had any intention of dealing (which can include giving and sharing drugs), you may be charged with this more serious offence. Decisions over whether you’re charged with intent to supply are based on the circumstances in which you were caught and the quantity of drugs you were caught with.

How do they decide who’s a ‘serious’ and a ‘not-so-serious’ dealer?

If you’re charged with intent to supply drugs the court will take a few things into consideration, such as the amount of drugs you had on you, the type of drug, and any previous convictions, before deciding your sentence. Then they’ll put you into one of three levels of seriousness and sentence you according to which one you’re in. The levels are:

‘Lesser role’

This includes giving some drugs to your mates, or being right at the bottom of a drugs supply chain, i.e. you’re a small fish, with not much understanding of where your illegal drugs come from, and the people above you in the chain don’t consider you important at all.

If you’ve been intimidated or coerced into supplying drugs in any way, you’re also considered to be of a lesser role.

If you’re a ‘lesser role’ charged with supplying a drug:

* The lowest form of punishment you’re looking at is a fine and/or community order.

* The highest form of punishment you can expect is up to nine years in prison.

‘Significant role’

This is for people considered a cog in the illegal drugs machine. You supply drugs for money on a regular basis. You also organise others below you into selling drugs, this can include intimidating them or pressurising them into it.

If you’re a ‘significant’ role charged with supplying a drug:

* The lowest form of punishment you’re looking at is a community order and maybe 12 weeks in prison.

* The worst punishment you can expect is 12 years in prison.

Leading role

Hi there Drugs Baron. You’re near the top of the drugs chain, close to the source. You make a lot of money from drugs, so much you need a business to ‘cover’ where the money is coming from. Frankly, we’re surprised you’re getting your legal information from us, but here goes:

* At the very least, you’re looking at a high-level community order and/or 18 months in prison.

* And if you’ve been dealing in a lot of Class A drugs, the sentence is around 16 years in prison. If you want to see more in-depth sentencing guidelines, you can see the Sentencing Council’s tables here.

What happens if I’m caught supplying a legal high?

It is an offence to produce or supply a legal high under the new Psychoactive Substances Act. If you’re caught, you could be jailed or fined.

What if I’m under 18?

The laws are a bit different if you’re under the age of 18. Here’s what you can expect…

* If it’s your first offence You’ll normally be given a Youth Caution, which isn’t a criminal conviction but will stay on your record forever.

* If it’s not your first offence You might still just get another caution, but it’s more likely you’ll be charged and have to go to Youth Court . The Youth Court is likely to give you an absolute or conditional discharge, which doesn’t include any punishment, but will give you a criminal record. If you re-offend again, things will get more serious.

In more serious cases you may be sentenced to a referral order, which will include meeting up regularly with a youth offending team and helping out in the community. Prison is only a last (and rare) option for under-18s, but does happen. If your drug offence is really serious, you may go to a Youth Offender’s Institution.

What to do if you’re caught with drugs

If the police arrest you, give your name and address when asked, but if you’re in any doubt about further questions then get a solicitor. You have a right to free legal help. Look at our Your Rights on Arrest article for more information.

Drug testing on arrest If you’re arrested and taken to a police station, you may be tested to find out if you’ve taken any Class A drugs. A person cannot be forced to provide a sample for testing, but it’s an offence to refuse to provide a sample without good cause and you could be fined up to £2500, or face three months in prison.

If you test positive for Class A drugs, you’ll be required to attend a compulsory drug assessment by specialist drugs workers. The assessment will determine the extent of your drug problem and help you into treatment and other support, even if you’re not charged with an offence.

Next Steps

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015