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Tips for people charged with drugs offences

A friendly London policeman told me the procedure that the police must follow when someone is found in possession of small quantities of illicit drugs for personal use. This procedure is laid down by and for the Metropolitan Police. Other police forces probably use similar manuals. I have now seen a copy of the "Case Disposal Manual incorporating Specific and General Gravity Factors" and discussed the matter with a solicitor.

The manual lays down a precise procedure that has to be followed when someone is arrested. The aim is fairness, so that someone arrested is not treated differently according to which police station they are taken to or which policeman arrested them. The effect is to remove discretion from individual officers. The manual states that "The main thrust... in respect of drugs related offences is to target drug trafficking". 'Trafficking' means dealing, and does not apply to people found in possession of a 'small amount' for their own use. "The term 'small amount' may differ according to the circumstances surrounding the offence and the offender. A small amount to a first time user may differ greatly to an addict who may possess larger amounts for personal use..." This implies that someone found with a handful of tablets, who would normally be sent to prison for supply, may get off if the police believe they are addicted.

The procedure for dealing with a person arrested for being in possession of small amounts of any drug is first to find out if they have a police record. This will include previous convictions, cautions and formal warnings. Whether the case goes to court will depend on such 'gravity factors', but if the person has no police record, the rules say that they should not be taken to court but instead be Cautioned or given a Formal Warning.

The Custody Officer will usually say that if you confess, he will 'let you off' with a Caution rather than prosecute. The law does give him the authority to decide, but his job is to follow the procedure laid down in the Case Disposal Manual. Before deciding to prosecute, he must also be satisfied that there is enough evidence to win the case and that the cost of the case is justified, otherwise his decision will be overturned by the Crown Prosecution Service. The Custody Officer would have to provide good reasons to his superiors to go against the guidelines.

When the police want to prosecute, they have to prepare a file which is examined by the Director of Public Prosecutions and it is they who decide. They will only take you to court if the police have shown that they have enough evidence to win; that it is in the public interest when the cost of the case is taken into account, and if the local courts have capacity (the most serious cases take priority).

Cautions and Formal Warnings

A Caution can only be given if you have admitted the offence. You will not be charged but you will have a police record, just like a criminal record, which is kept on computer and will be available to any policeman, even in the street. If you are later prosecuted, it can be mentioned in court (although the court will not punish you for the offence it relates to). A Formal Warning is only recorded in the local police station, not on computer, so that if you are stopped again in another police area it will not be known about, and in practice is usually not checked even in the same police area. In practice it is the same as being let off altogether.

Refuse to accept a Caution

If the police say they will let you off with a Caution and you refuse to accept it, they must either prosecute you or give you a Formal Warning. You may be afraid that they will plant more drugs or invent worse evidence if you don't accept the Caution, but my informant says that, although the police do bluff a lot, they do keep to the rules and are basically honest, "at least on my level as a uniformed policeman or CID officer." If you have not admitted the offence and the police have any doubt at all about winning, then the advice is to refuse the Caution they will then give you a Formal Warning instead.

How to behave

Make yourself easy for the police to handle but without incriminating yourself. The most important thing is to insist that any suspect drugs in your possession are for your own consumption as otherwise you will be dealt with as a dealer. Secondly, do not identify what they are. If you have pills with a logo on them, it is fair to say that you do not know what drug they contain and that they may contain none at all. Without your confession they will have to be analysed, increasing the cost of the case and making it more likely to be thrown out by the CPS (see above).

How to avoid arrest

If you don't want your drugs to be found, keep them in your underpants. To carry out an 'intimate search', the police have to take you to a police station and follow a tedious procedure, and they try to avoid that. They have to justify the search to their superiors, such as that friends in the same car were found with drugs. But if all of them had put the drugs in their underpants, then none would be charged. Obviously there is a fair amount of luck involved, but if you do not admit that any substances are illegal drugs then they must be analysed and the extra expense will reduce the chance of a court case.

More tips

If the police stop a car full of people and ask them to get out, and then find some Es on the floor, they do not have not enough evidence to charge anyone unless someone admits it is theirs. They will usually say they will "charge the lot of you" to try to get someone to confess, but this is bluff. However, this would enable them to get a search warrant to search the homes of all the occupants. If pills were found in your car, you are less likely to be tried in court if you do not admit they were yours. If one person in a car tells the police that the drugs found belong to someone else he identifies in the hope of getting off, he could find that instead he is accused of 'conspiracy to supply'!

Court Reports

If you are charged with an offence in certain circumstances, it may be in your best interests to have a lawyer request a Court Report from a psychiatrist. In many cases, the fee for such a report will be met by legal aid. These circumstances include being in an abnormal state of mind at the time, including a state due to drug use, committing an offence because you are addicted to a drug and need treatment, and being in possession of a large quantity of a drug because you have a problem with it and use large amounts, but are nevertheless charged with intent to supply.

There are currently only a few psychiatrists who have a specialised knowledge of Ecstasy and will act in this capacity. One such expert witness in London is Dr. Karl Jansen who wrote the paper on on adverse psychological effects on this site. Your lawyer can write to him at: 63-65 Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AZ; or email him at

Are you in possession of the contents of your stomach ?

The law refers to possession, and it has been established in a case where a man admitted to swallowing illegal drugs that he was no longer in possession, even after the police had his stomach pumped and the contents analysed. The judge said that the man was no more in possession of the drug than someone would be in possession of a steak after they had eaten it. However this does not apply in Sweden. index
E for Ecstasy contents
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