Prison sentencing guidelines for drug dealing, trafficking & supply in the UK

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

As well as depending on whether you are convicted of possession, dealing, supplying or trafficking drugs, the sentencing for drug offences is based on the classification of drugs involved. Maximum sentence for offences involving class A drugs is life imprisonment, while minor offences involving class B and C drugs often incur fines. Culpability and involvement of an individual are also factored in, and aggravating factors can include previous convictions, the purity of the drug and supplying on or near school premises.


Drug offences are very complex and every case is different. With drug supply offences ranging from passing a joint between friends to large scale commercial trafficking, sentences vary greatly.

If you are found guilty of supplying a small amount of a Class C drug it’s possible you will only receive a fine, but otherwise you should expect to receive – at the very least – a community order involving unpaid work supervised by a probation officer. This may be instead of, or in conjunction with, a prison sentence.

When a drug offence reaches court and the judge is deliberating the sentence, aggravating and mitigating factors will be considered and the starting point and maximum penalty will be determined by what ‘class’ of drug was involved.

There is a range of sentencing options that the court should have regard to when it is considering what punishment to impose for the drug related offence. The court must give its reasons if it is going to stray outside the sentencing range and it is therefore rare that the court will hand down a sentence that falls outside the appropriate range.

What are the drug sentencing guidelines for offences of this nature in the UK?

The sentence for a drug offence – whether possession, dealing, supply or trafficking – will depend on the class of the drug involved:

Class A drugs

  • Drugs: crack cocaine, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, magic mushrooms, methadone, methamphetamine
  • Maximum sentence: life imprisonment
  • Offence range: community order ­­­– 16 years’ custodial sentence

Class B drugs

  • Drugs: amphetamines, barbiturates, cannabis, codeine, ketamine, methylphenidate, synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones
  • Maximum sentence: 14 years’ custody and/or an unlimited fine
  • Offence range: A fine – 10 years’ custodial sentence

Class C drugs

  • Drugs: anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines, gamma hydroxybutyrate, gamma-butyrolactone, piperazines, khat
  • Maximum sentence: 14 years’ custody and/or an unlimited fine
  • Offence range: A fine – 8 years’ custodial sentence

The starting point is established by the drug ‘class’ but the final sentence will be based upon a number of factors including:

  1. The defendant’s culpability
  2. The harm associated with the offence
  3. Any additional aggravating and mitigating factors

The culpability is dependent on the defendant’s role in the offence. This may be:

  1. A leading role, i.e. directing the operation on a commercial scale
  2. A significant role, i.e. having an awareness and understanding of the scale of the operation
  3. A lesser role, i.e. being engaged in the operation by pressure, coercion or intimidation

The harm associated with the drug offence is determined by the quantity of drugs seized. Being found in possession of 5KG of cocaine will be deemed worse than being found with 5G of cocaine and therefore the sentence will be harsher.

Drug sentencing guidelines: Aggravating factors according to UK law

Any other circumstance that increase the culpability of the drug offence will be considered when a sentence is decided, as well as any evidence regarding the defendant or the circumstances of the crime that might result in establishing a lower level of culpability.

Aggravating factors include:

  1. Previous convictions
  2. The purity of the drug
  3. If the drugs were supplied drugs on or in the vicinity of school premises

Mitigating factors include:

  1. An isolated incident
  2. Good character and/or exemplary conduct

With the starting point established and all aggravating and mitigating factors considered, the court will adjust the sentence within the range determined by the class of drug.

In certain cases where the defendant has relevant previous convictions for drug offences, the court may be required to impose a minimum length of prison sentence. These types of cases require special attention and careful consideration to ensure that a fair and just result is obtained that reflects all the circumstances.

If you have been charged with a drug offence you should immediately seek expert legal advice to ensure your case is considered in detail with mitigating factors strongly established. Get in touch our highly experienced team of drug offence solicitors who will work to ensure the most favourable result is obtained on your behalf.

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