British scientist Paul Frampton stopped at airport in Buenos Aires with two kilos of cocaine in suitcase
British scientist Paul Frampton stopped at airport in Buenos Aires with two kilos of cocaine in suitcase Reuters

Street drug dealers caught selling relatively small amounts of class A drugs could avoid a jail sentence under new guidelines for judges which come into force in February.

Dealers regarded as "low-level operatives" or who are caught supplying friends with five grams of heroin or cocaine could avoid prison as could those selling up to 6kg of cannabis, valued at £17,000 and enough to fill 30,000 joints or keep an average user in supply for 17 years.

The sentencing rules shift the focus to gangs and big operators.

Under the rules, so-called drug mules who bring narcotics into the country and are often exploited by organised criminals, could be given community service instead of a jail sentence if caught with relatively small amounts of class C drugs.

Tougher sentences, however, could be passed on key players guilty of producing drugs on a large scale and on anyone dealing to children or teenagers under 18.

Lord Justice Hughes, the Sentencing Council's deputy chairman, said: "Drug abuse underlies a huge volume of acquisitive and violent crime and dealing can blight communities.

"Offending and offenders vary widely so we have developed this guideline to ensure there is effective guidance for sentencers and clear information for victims, witnesses and the public on how drug offenders are sentenced.

"Drug dealers can expect substantial jail sentences."

Emphasis welcomed

The drug advice charity Release, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and the Transnational Institute of Policy Studies (TNI) said the guidelines would see the starting point for drug mules reduced from 10 years to six in most cases.

As of June 2010, 1,549 of the 11,071 people in prison for drug offences were being held on charges of unlawful import or export, Ministry of Justice figures showed.

Some 15% of women in prison in England and Wales are foreign nationals, with most women jailed for drugs importation coming from Nigeria, Jamaica and South Africa, the Prison Reform Trust campaign group said.

Juliet Lyon, the group's director, said: "The new emphasis on holding organised criminals to account, rather than allowing the burden of punishment to fall on vulnerable people, many of whom have been coerced into offending, is both timely and welcome.

"In the light of these new guidelines, the Prison Reform Trust calls on the government to review the sentences of all those who have been trafficked into acting as drug mules and are languishing for long years in British jails."