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1997 Disposals

Social or Commercial Supply? The courts draw a distinction between commercial supply and social supply [Bennett 1981] - ie selling or giving away cannabis (or other drugs) to friends and acquaintances for little or no profit, rather than on the street. In many cases a guilty plea is bargained on the basis of commercial supply, whereas if the case goes to trial the prosecution run a "commercial supply" case. However, custodial sentences [e.g. 12 months in Smith 1980, 6 months in Daudi 1982] or large fines may be expected. In all, over 45% of all people convicted in 1997 of possession of cannabis with intent were imprisoned.

Simple possession cases rarely reach the appeal courts, although persistent "offenders" may be gaoled [Osbourne 1982, Jones 1981, Robertson-Coupar 1982].

Approximately 59% of individuals (45362 of 77943) arrested for simple possession were cautioned in 1997, 17644 (23%) were fined, 4917 (6%) discharged (absolute or conditional) and 2417 (3%) were imprisoned. Simple possession of cannabis has normally accounted for between 80% and 90% of all drug convictions since the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced in 1971, although the seizure rate for cannabis (77%) was the lowest since then. For those proceeded against for cannabis possession, fines are generally the norm, the average fine in 1997 being £95, mostly in the range of £20 to £200, depending on the amount seized and the other circumstances of the case.

Cannabis Cultivation, known as unlawful production rarely involves imprisonment, although "commercial" growers will normally face a stretch. A bedroom may be deemed a commercial arrangement, and the authorities take a dim view of hydroponics and "skunk". A roomful of plants under a couple of lights may well attract a sentence of 1 to 2 years, or a four figure fine. Potential yields and prices are frequently exaggerated to make the system appear to be on a commercial scale. A couple of plants on a windowsill might attract a caution, conditional discharge or small fine.

Immediate Custody: In all, 5196 people were imprisoned for cannabis offences (6%) - the lowest rate of imprisonment for any major drug - and a further 292 received suspended sentences. Rates of imprisonment were higher for Class A drugs (crack 36%, cocaine 34%, LSD 28%, ecstasy & heroin 27%), and were also higher for the other main class B drug - amphetamine (16%).

The average length of prison sentence increased slightly to 22.9 months. However, much higher rates of imprisonment and lengths of sentence were imposed in 1997 for drug trafficking offences (overall 30.5 months) - including unlawful supply (29.5 months), possession with intent (23.3 months), import/export (66.6 months) and production (14.1 months) - compared to simple possession (3.6 months).

The sentencing differential also showed major differences between lengths of prison sentences for different drugs. The shortest average sentences were for anabolic steroids (one case - 9 months), followed by amphetamines (11.7 months), and cannabis (14.5 months). The longest average sentences were for cocaine (54.2 months), crack (32.7 months), ecstasy (31.8 months), and heroin (27.8 months). The shorter amphetamine sentences compared to cannabis may be explained by virtue of the fact that a much higher proportion of amphetamine users were imprisoned in the first place, presumably a proportion of these would be jailed for relatively minor offences, where the courts would impose a short prison term, whereas for cannabis fewer users are imprisoned, presumably for more serious offences, with less inclination on the part of the courts to impose "short sharp" sentences where alternatives to custody are available.

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