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Understanding Drug Crime Outcomes in England and Wales 2023

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Conspiracy Solicitor delve into the latest drug offences statistics in England and Wales from the Office for National Statistics to understand the patterns we’re seeing for drug crime outcomes in the UK.

Our criminal justice system faces a wide variety of issues concerning drug related offences, and how these offences are dealt with.

Many would argue that a drug offence is a victimless crime where a consenting adult is in possession of a drug for recreational purposes, and has not harmed themselves or another person. This may be why low-level drugs possession offences, committed by individuals who are not dealers, do not often end up in Court.

Prison capacity is often a problem, as can be the facilitation of rehabilitation programmes, ensuring their access and effectiveness. Where drug offenders are suffering from addiction, the current UK justice system often prioritises early intervention through rehabilitation programmes, seeing this as more valuable than punishment.

Others look towards the wider impact of drug offences on society beyond the individual user, for instance, issues of addiction and how these impact our society and healthcare system. The drugs trade often fuels organised crime and violence and, naturally, these have a negative impact on people and communities.

Annual crime outcome records released in 2023 highlight some interesting statistics that show how drug crimes are treated in comparison to more violent crimes. Here, we’ll be taking a deep dive into these statistics, and providing some commentary on what these statistics may show us.

Key Drug Crime Outcome Stats

  • 210,581 drug offences recorded between March 2020 and 2021, compared to 177,644 drug offences recorded the next year.
  • Decrease of 16% from March 2020-21 to March 2021-22 – the only crime group to decrease.
  • 3% of drug offences (5,280 cases) were cancelled/transferred to another force.
  • There were a higher proportion of violent crimes cancelled, including violence against a person (4%), possession  of weapons and robbery (8%), and sexual offences (7%).
  • Less than 1 in 5 drug offences were charged/summonsed in March 2021-22.
  • Drug crimes are the 2nd highest charged/summonsed offence, after weapons offences (27.5%).
  • Drug offences are dealt with outside of court more than any other offence group.
  • Drug offences are the highest offence group where it wasn’t in the public interest to prosecute.
  • Over 1 in 4 drug offence cases takes more than 100 days for an outcome.
  • Drug offences are the 6th quickest crime to conclude in March 2021-2022.

How Are Drug Offences charged in the UK?

Key statistics on drug charges in the UK 2020 to 2022

In year ending March 2021, the recorded number of charges was 57,157 compared to 48,099 in 2022.

The data shows that, whilst the overall number of drug cases recorded has declined by almost 16%, the percentage of drug cases that resulted in a charge or the offender being summonsed to court has stayed the same, at 27%.

In fact, over 1 in 4 drug offences from March 2021-2022 resulted in a charge. This makes drug related offences the 2nd biggest offence group to have charges brought against a person, after possession of weapons at 1 in 3 cases bringing a charge.

This is very high in comparison to, for example, sexual offences, theft offences, and criminal damage offences, which generally had a charge rate of between 5 and 6%.

What factors determine a drug charge?

How drug offenders are treated depends on a multitude of factors, for instance, whether it’s a first-time offence or if the person has a history of drug offences. More severe charges are served to those who have also been involved in drug dealing.

Where a person is guilty of a first-time drug offence involving a small quantity of drugs for personal use, the offence is often dealt with via a caution or a community or rehabilitation programme, intended to educate and help that person access support.

When dealing with a repeat offender, the UK legal system is less lenient; the offender may face a large fine, or time in prison.

Where a person is intending to deal drugs, or has been successful in dealing drugs, the prison sentence will be based on the class of the drug involved, the operation scale, and what role the individual played in distribution.

Reasons for drug related crimes declining between 2020 and 2022

There are many reasons that could be used to explain this decline, such as:

  • Law enforcement: improved law enforcement tactics may have served to disrupt drug trafficking networks, leading to a reduction in drug involved crimes overall.
  • Community support: community programs that attempt to prevent drug abuse by focusing on education and rehabilitation are often useful in guiding individuals away from drug abuse and crime.
  • Rehabilitation support: refined drug treatment programs and rehabilitation support has become more accessible. Initiatives such as these can help individuals with drug addiction, consequently reducing drug related crimes over time.
  • Economic factors: during COVID-19, many people found themselves with less income, which is likely to have prevented excessive drug use.

Drug offences dealt with outside of Court

According to the data, 45% of drug offences are dealt with out of Court, which is greater than any other offence group.

Drug offences can be particularly difficult to deal with in Court, partly because each one is unique by nature. When a case is based on personal usage as opposed to dealing drugs, it is often more appropriate to serve cautions, which do not require Court intervention.

Courts are likely to offer alternative methods in order to support drug rehabilitation initiatives. Recent trends focus on intervention and programs that address the central causes of drug-influenced behaviours. The approach is geared towards treatment and assistance over punishment.

Reasons for handling drug related crime cases outside of the court system may include:

Court backlog issues

Removing minor drug offences from the Courts can help to relieve the burden on the legal system, since our Courts are consistently backed up with cases. This also allows the Courts to focus on cases that are more serious.

Public health approach

Our legal system is gradually adopting the idea that drug addiction should be considered a public health issue rather than a criminal matter.

This means that the underlying causes of drug-related problems can be handled with a community-based approach. As a result, those experiencing drug addiction are given the opportunity to seek the support they need, whilst remaining safe.

Some parts of the world have already made significant moves towards a community focused approach, for instance, Portugal decriminalised drug usage and possession nationwide in 2001. In Portugal today, possession of drugs for personal use is judged as an administrative offence and is not punishable by imprisonment.

During the initial five years following the reforms, there was a substantial decrease in drug-related fatalities. Subsequently, there was a slight increase in the following years, eventually reaching the 2005 levels by 2011, with only 10 deaths attributed to drug overdose that year.

Community Support

A public based health approach often focuses on community-based diversion programs, facilitated by local support networks and organisations.

These programmes serve to address the circumstances and needs of the people involved in drug-related offences, improving their chances of rehabilitation and recovery, particularly where addiction is concerned.

Identification of suspects

The data shows that only 3.8% of drug offence cases involved unidentified suspects, which is the lowest among all crimes analysed. In contrast, theft cases had a substantially higher rate of 72% involving unidentified suspects.

Arguably, this might be because many drug offences are not a pre-mediated crime. Instead, it’s often the case that individuals are caught red-handed with drugs on their possession, and so are, of course, easily identified.

Drug Offences Cancelled or Transferred

3% of drug offence cases are cancelled or transferred. Of the 5,280 transferred or cancelled records, 7% were transferred to another force – one of the lowest offences passed to another force.

What’s more, 8% of drug offence cases were found to not have occurred – the lowest of all offence groups compared to 41% of theft cases, 20% of robbery/criminal damage cases, and 16% sexual offence cases.

The nature of drug crimes, in comparison to violent crimes, is that many have very clear evidence; that of a person being found in possession of drugs. In comparison, violent crimes may have unclear evidence that does not point to a particular person. As such, these statistics reveal that drug crimes may be easier to pursue than others due to concrete evidence.

Reasons for Not Prosecuting Drug Cases

Statistics show that around 4% of drug offences were not prosecuted because it was not deemed in the public interest to do so; the highest rate compared to any other offence group. What’s more, around 1 in 5 of all drug charges overall were charged/summonsed; the second highest after weapons offences.

To delve a bit deeper into this, we might fairly assume that the offenders were seen as victims of circumstance instead of willing criminals. The Courts do not typically wish to focus on regular individuals who possess small amounts of drugs, or those with addiction issues, and instead focus on drug dealers, particularly those involved in high level operations.

What is the difference between drug offences dealt with formally and informally?

In the UK, drug offences can either be dealt with formally or informally. When an offence is handled informally, this may involve a caution, which is essentially a warning. That warning will be considered in any future legal proceedings against that individual. Another example of an informal handling would be community service.

In contrast, a formal handling involves arrest, and potentially court proceedings and prosecution. Whether or not an offence is handled formally or informally depends on the seriousness of the crime.

The data analysis shows that 45% of drugs offences were dealt with out of Court. This is the highest rate compared to any other offence group, above possession of weapons at 9%.

How Long Do Drug Offences Take to Conclude?

On the topic of how long drug offences take to conclude, the data revealed that:

  • The median amount of time to conclude a case between March 2021 and 2022 was 23 days.
  • This figure has increased almost year on year, more than doubling since 2016, whilst sexual offences have reduced.
  • Drug crimes are the 6th quickest crime to conclude in 2021-2022 – more quickly than violence against a person, criminal damage and arson, and theft offences.

Drug offence concluding time has more than doubled since 2016, suggesting perhaps the intricacies of drug offences are becoming more complex. Namely, perhaps drug dealers are becoming more intricate with their operations due to the involvement of international matters and organised crime.

The process of collecting evidence is also a lengthy one, which now usually involves downloading digital collateral and, as such, the process requires skill and can be expensive and time consuming.

Where there is a backlog of cases, this may also contribute to delays, further escalated by inadequate resources.

How Does the Length of Time Taken to Conclude a Drug Offence Differ to Other Offences

When we compare the length of time taken to conclude drug offences, the data reveals that:

  • 10% of drug offences conclude on the same day as the report. This is below average compared to 19% of all offence groups overall.
  • 31% of theft offences are given an outcome on the same day, followed by criminal damage and arson (29%) and public order offences (16%).
  • Sexual offences (5%) and robbery (6%) are the only other offence groups scoring below 10%.
  • Otherwise, drug offences take, on average, the following number of days to come to conclude:
    • 1 to 5 days - 21%
    • 6 to 30 days - 23%
    • 31 to 100 days - 19%
    • More than 100 days, 27% vs an average of 16% across all offence groups.
    • Robbery (32%) and sexual offences (38%) are the only other offence groups with a higher percentage for outcomes over 100 days.

What Do Drug Crime Statistics Show Us?

The drug crime data shows us a number of interesting statistics. For example, there was a much higher proportion of violent crimes cancelled compared to drug crimes, which suggests resources may not be being used for higher priority crimes involving lives at risk.

Even so, less than 1 in 5 drug offences were charged/summonsed in March 2021-22, although this remained the 2nd highest charged/summonsed offence after weapons offences.

In comparison to other crimes, drug offences are dealt with outside of court more than any other offence group. Despite this, over 1 in 4 drug offence cases takes more than 100 days for an outcome; the 6th quickest of all crimes.

Ultimately, drug offences are the only crime group to have decreased, but are still the 2nd highest offence group to end with a charge, with 177,644 recorded offences of which 1 in 4 concluded with a charge.

For more information on how the team at Conspiracy Solicitor can help you with any drug offences, call us as soon as possible on 0333 009 5968 for standard enquiries during office hours, or WhatsApp on 07535 215140 for 24/7 emergency support.