Can first time offenders get possession charges dropped according to UK law?

Reviewed by Nick Titchener on 23rd August 2023

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

With over 100 years of combined experience, Lawtons are the go-to solicitors for all legal matters related to first-time drug offence allegations. Our specialised team understands the sensitive nature of these cases and ensures that clients receive dedicated, personalised attention and a robust defence strategy tailored to their specific circumstances.

Lawtons handles first-time drug-related matters with the utmost sensitivity. We take a compassionate and supportive approach, prioritising the wellbeing and confidentiality of our clients throughout the entire legal process. 

Armed with the knowledge of the most complex legal frameworks surrounding such matters, Lawtons has successfully defended clients and achieved favourable outcomes in many drug offence cases.

Possession of joint

When you’re first charged with drug possession, it can be difficult to make sense of what the charges will actually mean and what may happen.

Penalties for possession range from minor warnings that won’t typically your affect day to day life such as employment, to lengthy prison sentences that will remain on your criminal record for life.

If you are charged with possessing drugs as a first offence, it’s important to ensure that you know what to expect from a possession charge. Expert legal advice and guidance from a specialist solicitor is always advisable when faced with a charge of possessing drugs as the wrong decisions at an early stage of an investigation or police enquiry can have long term consequences.

Do first time drug offenders go to jail in the UK?

If you’re caught possessing a small amount of drugs for the first time, and they’re solely for personal use, it’s unlikely that you’ll be sent to prison. Instead, you may receive an out-of-court disposal, such as or a caution. 

Depending on the type and the amount of drugs you’re caught with, you might receive an absolute or conditional discharge from the court. This means you’ll either be discharged without punishment, or you’ll not receive punishment so long as you aren’t prosecuted again within the next 12 to 18 months. 

Mitigating circumstances

If you’re caught in possession of larger quantities of drugs that suggest you were intending to supply them to others, charges are unlikely to be dropped and the punishment will be more severe with the case heading to the court.

The consequences are more severe if it appears that you were actively involved in an organisation selling drugs, or if you were caught with drugs near a school or a prison.

In these types of circumstances, you may find yourself being accused of being concerned in the supply or distribution of controlled drugs. In these cases, the case will normally dealt with in the crown court and a custodial sentence will be considered

There are various factors that the police and courts take into account when they are dealing with first time offenders, some of which may include:

  1. Showing remorse
  2. Whether admissions have been made
  3. Possessing only a small amount of drugs for personal consumption
  4. Generally demonstrating a good character.

Cautions and discharges

If your first conviction for possessing drugs is for possessing a small quantity of any lower-class drug for personal use, your charge is not quite dropped, but you are likely to only receive a caution for the offence.

Cautions are entirely dealt with at a police station and don’t lead to any further punishment, apart from – rarely –  extra conditions like attending drug treatment. They are recorded on your criminal record and will normally show up on a DBS enquiry.

If your first conviction is more serious – perhaps because you were caught in possession of class A drugs – your case may be referred to the courts who will then consider a range of options, including whether the case could be dealt with by way of a fine or a discharge. This must be decided by a court and can either take the form of an absolute discharge or a conditional discharge.

An absolute discharge comes with no further punishment and is very rare in cases of drug possession. A conditional discharge means that if you are convicted for another crime within around 12-18 months, you will be sentenced for both the new offence and the one for which the discharge was originally imposed. All discharges appear on your criminal record and are classified as criminal convictions.

How is first time possession of cannabis classified in the UK?

It is important to remember that in the case of cannabis possession, the guidelines are more lenient. If your first offence is being caught with a small amount of cannabis for personal use, you may just receive a cannabis warning from a police officer. There is no further punishment and it doesn’t go onto your criminal record, although the police will keep a note of the offence in case you go on to offend again. The offence can also feature on an enhanced DBS enquiry.

If you’ve already received a cannabis warning and get caught in possession of the drug again, you may receive a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND) from the police or you may be formally cautioned or charged and sent to court, depending on whether there are any aggravating factors and how much cannabis you are caught with. A PND is a one-off fine of £80 that increases to £120 if it is not paid within 21 days. If you are caught in possession of cannabis a third time, then you will receive a caution.

What happens if you’re caught with cannabis when under 18 years old?

Understandably, different sentencing guidelines apply to those below the age of 18. However, there are still serious consequences.

So what happens if you get caught in possession of weed under 18 years of age?

One option at the disposal of police is a community resolution, which is a less formal way to deal with a crime. This out-of-court action applies to cases where the offender accepts responsibility. It might involve agreeing to ‘an act or reparation’, such as a financial penalty or attending a course.

Alternatively, the offender could be referred to a youth offending team, who might decide to issue a youth caution or a youth conditional caution. Youth cautions are recorded on the police national computer but are considered ‘spent’, meaning that people don’t have to reveal them to prospective employers. Youth conditional cautions are less commonly issued for this offence and mean that unless certain conditions are met, the young person could be prosecuted.

If a young person is found in possession three or more times, they can be charged with the offence of possession and ordered to attend Youth Court.

DBS check filter

It is worth knowing that a DBS check filter is eventually applied to most cautions, discharges and convictions for possessing drugs.

This means that if you are over 18, after six years any cautions for drug possession will not come up on a DBS check. It takes 11 years for convictions for drug possession to be filtered.

This doesn’t exactly mean that charges are dropped, as any warnings, cautions, discharges and convictions all stay on the police national computer (PNC).

If your employer asks you in an official capacity you always have to be honest about any drug possession charges.

What to do if you are accused of possessing drugs

While no drugs possession charge ever totally disappears, if it is your first time being caught with a small amount of drugs, there are very clear limits on how severe your punishment should be.

A first time offender caught in possession of illegal drugs should seek expert legal advice as soon as possible in order to ensure they do not get charged with anything more severe than a caution or a discharge. However, the effects of the caution can be significant in terms of travel and employment and it’s important to ensure that every avenue is explored. .

If you have any doubts about the severity of a punishment, contact the specialist team at Lawtons – we can give you the help and advice that you need, so just get in touch.

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