Dealers of class-A drugs to be freed sooner

Pushers caught with up to £100,000 of cocaine or heroin face downgraded sentences.

Mark Macaskill
DRUG dealers caught with heroin and cocaine worth up to £100,000 could be jailed for as little as 15 months under new guidelines issued by the Crown Office. Senior prosecutors have been ordered to ignore existing rules that state anyone caught with Class A drugs worth £20,000 or more should appear in the High Court, which can impose a maximum life sentence.
Now dealers caught with hauls worth up to £100,000 will appear before sheriff courts that can only hand out a maximum five-year jail term. It means that offenders – who in Scotland are eligible for release after serving a quarter of their sentence – could be back on the streets after 15 months behind bars.
The move is aimed at reducing the workload on the country’s High Courts, many of which are struggling to cope with a rising tide of crime. However, it has provoked anger among senior police officers, prosecutors and drugs campaigners who have accused the Crown Office of downgrading the offence to save money.
According to government figures published last year, heroin seizures in Scotland in 2005 rose by 27% on the previous year from 2,224 to 2,816, while cocaine hauls increased by 23% from 709 to 870 over the same period.
“The public will be getting more and more concerned that we are heading towards a soft touch Scotland,” said Bill Aitken, justice spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives. “I would be deeply concerned at anything that sends out a signal that drug trafficking is in any way seen as a second-class crime.”
Alistair Ramsay, chairman of Drugwise, the Glasgow-based drugs advice service, said: “You have to be horrified that these kinds of sentences are being used to save money and time. “If courts take a more lenient line, the message is clear that society, particularly in Scotland, is becoming more tolerant of drugs. That is the wrong message.”
A senior police officer, who asked not to be named, added: “My concern is that £100,000 is a lot of drugs – the equivalent of about 1Åkg of heroin. People have to be punished in relation to the quantity of drugs they are smuggling. This isn’t much of a deterrent.” There are already signs that the new guidelines are being implemented. Last week, a man who had pleaded guilty to smuggling £50,000 worth of heroin from Liverpool destined for Aberdeen, appeared at Dundee sheriff court.
The case was originally marked by the procurator fiscal for the High Court but, the decision was overruled by the Crown. He is expected to be sentenced next month. Last week, the Crown Office insisted that drugs offences were still viewed seriously and would be treated as such.
“We have a duty to review our prosecution policy on which court should hear a particular case,” it said.

Source: The Sunday Times April 20, 2008

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