Drug trafficking: Possession with intent to distribute in the UK

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

Drugs supply

Have you been accused of drug trafficking? Possession with intent to distribute drugs will almost always justify a prosecution and likely prison sentence if the convicted. 

Every case of possession with intent to distribute is different and the outcome will depend on several factors, but in any case the consequences will be severe if you are found guilty of a drug offence – including drug trafficking.

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at London Criminal Defence Law Firm, Lawtons, discusses this complex area of the law and its implications.

What is drug trafficking according to UK law?

Drug trafficking is a globally recognised issue and and a high profile area of the law. The process of drug trafficking involves the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, supply and sale of substances such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin, which are subject to drug prohibition laws.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) states that drug trafficking to the UK costs an estimated £10.7 billion per year and that the use of illegal drugs – particularly Class A drugs – impacts considerably on the social and economic well-being of the country.

Drug trafficking is a significant issue in the UK with drugs widely available throughout the UK. Statistics have shown that:

  • An estimated 18-23 tonnes of heroin and 25-30 tonnes of cocaine are imported annually into the UK
  • An estimated 270 tonnes of cannabis is needed to satisfy annual UK user demand. Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug, with the UK wholesale market worth almost £1 billion per year

The resources available to the NCA and the regional crime agencies that investigate these specific types of offence are significant.

In an effort to detect, control and limit the supply and distribution of controlled drugs, extensive and complex surveillance tactics are often used, with the police or NCA often undertaking lengthy undercover operations, some of which can last for months or years.

What is possession with intent to distribute?

Unlawful possession, unlawful supply and intent to supply ‘controlled’ and/or psychoactive drugs are classified as criminal offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016).

To be charged with possession with intent to supply drugs you must be found to be in possession of a controlled drug with evidence to show the intention to pass the controlled substance to someone else who has no legal right to possess it.

Being charged with supplying drugs or being suspected of supplying drugs is considered a much more serious crime than simply being charged for possession of drugs.

If you are caught in possession of a small amount of a controlled drug and charged with intent to supply, you may plead guilty to the charge of possession but not guilty to supply on the grounds that the drugs seized were for personal use only.

It is however important to note that statements made at the time of arrest can be significant to the outcome of a case.

For example, if a person is simply found in possession of a small amount of a controlled drug but they state that they are for a friend, that person could subsequently be charged with the more serious offence of possession with intent to supply.

If an intention to supply cannot be proved by direct evidence in the form of admissions or witness testimony, the prosecution will attempt to prove guilt for intent to distribute based on inference or circumstantial evidence, including:

  • Possession of drug supply paraphernalia such as scales, small packets that may be used to bag-up drugs, cling film and large sums of unexplained cash
  • Possession of a quantity of a controlled drug that may be inconsistent with personal use
  • Possession of drugs of a high purity level which suggests that they are uncut

Distribution of drugs is not limited to dealing or selling drugs for profit—the issue of financial gain is primarily relevant for the purposes of establishing the scale and background to the supply chain and for sentencing.

Drug supply ranges from large-scale commercial trafficking for profit to simply passing a controlled substance from one person to another, i.e. passing a joint between friends.

While simply supplying drugs is not considered as serious as the importation of drugs into the country, or the actual production or manufacture of such substances, it still carries a significant sentence and will inevitably impact on every aspect of an individual’s life if they are found guilty of the offence.

Sentencing for possession with intent to distribute

Sentencing for drug distribution cases is complicated. The court will consider a number of factors including the defendant’s culpability and harm associated with the offence when determining the type and length of any sentence imposed.

Whether the case is one involving social supply or for financial gain will be one of the main factors taken into consideration.

Possession with intent to supply Class A drugs will almost always justify a prosecution and likely prison sentence if the defendant is convicted of the offence.

Every case of possession with intent to distribute is different and the outcome will depend on several factors. Due to the complexity of police and NCA investigations this can be a highly complex area of the law, with cases often involving thousands of pages of evidence.

Expert legal advice is vital in such cases, as it is this evidence that the police and prosecution will be relying upon and every piece of evidence will be significant in building the case.

What should you do if you are charged with possession with intent to distribute?

If you have been charged with possession with intent to supply or distribute controlled drugs you should take immediate and expert legal advice to ensure your case is considered in detail and that the most favourable result is obtained on your behalf.

At Lawtons we have extensive experience of dealing with serious drug supply and importation cases that have been brought by the NCA (formerly known as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency), plus some of the specialist regional police teams.

We can instruct some of the leading barristers and experts in the preparation of our client’s cases to ensure the best possible outcome.

About the author

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate of Lawtons, is a dedicated criminal solicitor with considerable experience in legal cases including sexual offences, violence and assault. Nick’s measured and methodical approach means he thrives on even the most complex case.

Nick also oversees the overall management of Lawtons Solicitors, a specialist firm of criminal law defence solicitors with branches across London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.

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