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Punishing Drug Possession in the Magistrates’ Courts: Time for a Rethink


A lively drug policy debate is going on in the UK, and a central theme emerging is the punishment of drug offenders. The main contributing voices draw attention to the largely futile position of prosecuting offenders through the criminal justice system who are drug addicted and/or who are caught in possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. This paper adds to this discussion by reporting findings from observations carried out in London Magistrates’ Courts. It notes the relatively high prevalence of small quantity drug possession cases that appeared before the courts over the study days, and questions the value of this type of crime arriving here in the first place. It examines the resultant financial penalties that are most commonly dispensed, and asks whether they can be reasonably justified. It states these are harsh and depriving given the already economically disadvantaged status of most defendants. In addition, case details revealed issues of policing approach involving ‘stop and search’ and the variable application of police discretion. The paper calls for thought to be given to the damage caused to peoples’ lives through pursuing criminalising drug policies, and to the time and economic cost to stretched policing and criminal justice resources. It suggests we learn lessons from other European jurisdictions who assign drug possession for personal use cases, to an arm of the prosecution service where they are processed as ‘out-of-court’, ‘administration offences’.

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  1. The Liberal Democratic party laid out ideas for a revised drug policy favouring the ‘depenalisation’ of some drugs at their 2011 autumn party conference (Hoyle 2011), and at the time of writing a Home Affairs Select Committee was carrying out an inquiry into UK drug policy.

  2. Magistrates’ Courts adjudicate on ‘summary’ and ‘triable either way’ (TEW) offences. Cannabis possession charges pertaining to small quantities is within the jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court, but cocaine and heroin possession are TEW offences and can be sent to the Crown Court for trial and/or sentencing.

  3. See the Drugscope web document for the specific drug substances that sit within the different A to C classifications (Drugscope 2012

  4. The 2011 drug offences figures were obtained from the Ministry of Justice under a Freedom of Information Act request (Source: Justice Statistics Analytical Services - Ministry of Justice).

  5. It is possible the use of ‘immediate custody’ can be explained by other factors such as previous ‘failure to surrender’ etc. More nuanced breakdowns of the data are not available, and as such any reading of it must be done with caution.

  6. During the time cannabis sat as a Class C drug in the UK, it remained illegal but was effectively decriminalised. Instead of prosecutions through the courts, ‘cannabis warnings’ were issued and a person could receive more than one warning without further penalty (Drugscope 2009).

  7. Proceedings in the Magistrates’ Courts are abjudicated by either a legally qualified District Judge, or a panel of three volunteer magistrates (Sanders et al 2010).

  8. ‘Cannabis warnings’, Penalty Notices for Disorder (PNDs), cautions etc. are all options available in the policing of cannabis possession (Drugscope 2009).

  9. The ‘Coroners and Justice Act 2009’ makes compliance to the sentencing guidelines more fixed than previously, with any deviation from them requiring a reason (Roberts 2010: 142).

  10. A conflicting view has emerged on the success of Portugal’s drug policy (see Hughes and Stevens 2012).


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Correspondence to Jenni Ward.

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Ward, J. Punishing Drug Possession in the Magistrates’ Courts: Time for a Rethink. Eur J Crim Policy Res 19, 289–307 (2013).

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  • Drug ‘depenalisation’
  • Magistrates’ Courts
  • Punishing drug possession
  • Sentencing