Law Report: Drugs' value in weight not price: Regina v Aranguren and others - Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)(Lord Taylor of Gosforth, Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Waterhouse and Mr Justice Bell)

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The Independent Culture
20 June 1994.

Sentencing guidelines for the importation of class A drugs have been revised so that the length of sentence relates to the weight of the consignment of drugs at 100 per cent purity rather than to its street value.

The Court of Appeal dismissed five appeals against sentences of imprisonment for offences of being knowingly concerned in the importation of cocaine, or for possessing cocaine with intent to supply it. The first appellant pleaded guilty to an importation of 621.3 grammes of cocaine, of which 588.4 grammes were of 85 per cent purity and 32.9 grammes were of 65 per cent purity. He was sentenced to eight years and had been deported.

The second and third appellants were convicted of offences relating to 1.19 kilogrammes of cocaine of 85 per cent purity. Each was sentenced to 10 years. The fourth appellant was convicted of importing 12.78 kilogrammes of cocaine of 95 per purity and sentenced to 15 years. The fifth appellant was convicted of, inter alia, supplying drugs, namely 350 grammes of cannabis resin, 855.6 grammes of 6 per cent pure amphetamine, and 1.18 kilogrammes of 92 per cent pure cocaine, and sentenced to seven years for those offences.

Peter Thornton QC, and John O'Higgins; Ben Emmerson (Registrar of Criminal Appeals) for the appellants; Alan Suckling QC, and Ian Foinette (Customs & Excise Solicitor); Alan Suckling QC, and Andrew R Mitchell (CPS) for the Crown.

LORD TAYLOR LCJ, giving the court's judgment, said that in each case the basis on which the quantity of drugs seized was assessed at trial was challenged. Money values were put on each seizure, purporting to be the amount realisable for the ultimate consumers. Although that approach of assessing 'the street value' had been adopted for some years, it was argued that the figures used in the five cases were unrepresentative and unfair and, more fundamentally, that a more satisfactory basis for assessing the importance of a consignment of cocaine was by weight.

Sentencing guidelines for the importation of drugs had been laid down in R v Aramah (1982) 4 Cr App R 407. The Court of Appeal in R v Bilinski (1987) 9 Cr App R (s) 360 altered the scale in Aramah by increasing the guidelines for importing class A drugs, so that a consignment with a street value of pounds 100,000 or more should attract a sentence of 10 years and upwards and if the street value was pounds 1m or more, 14 years and upwards would be appropriate.

There were inherent difficulties about valuing drugs. Being an illegal commodity, prices were not overtly established, prices ranged from place to place, from time to time, and were dependent on purity. Notwithstanding those problems, the provision to the courts of street value estimates, for use only as a rough guide, had been a reasonable and fair approach.

Nevertheless, the better way to measure the relative significance of any seizure of class A drugs was by weight rather than by street value. Street value was difficult to assess in a given case. The effect of that imposition was that prosecution figures for average purity or average price might be challenged and the judicial response might vary. Some judges might follow the prosecution figures, some might take the mean figure between those of the prosecution and defence experts, and some might assume in the defendant's favour.

One important reason for considering weight rather than street value was that if cocaine or heroin was readily available, the price to the consumer dropped. So the more imports the drug profiteers could achieve, the lower the street value per gramme. By taking street values as the criteria, the sentencing level for like quantities of the drug became lower as supplies became more plentiful.

Although making large profits from importing prohibited drugs was morally reprehensible, the main mischief to which the prohibitions were directed by Parliament was the widespread pushing of addictive drugs harmful to the community. It could not serve Parliament's purpose if the more drugs were imported, therefore the lower the street price, the lower the level of sentencing.

The sentencing yardsticks would be revised by expressing them in terms of weight rather than street value of the drugs. It was necessary to calculate what weight of the drug at 100 per cent purity was contained in each seizure, so that a consistent approach could be made to the significance of each consignment.

The guidelines in Bilinski in respect of class A drugs should be substituted by the following: Where the weight of the drugs at 100 per cent purity was of the order of 500 grammes or more, sentences of 10 years and upwards were appropriate. Where the weight at 100 per cent purity was of the order of five kilogrammes of more, sentences of 14 years and upwards were appropriate.

Applying those principles to the appellants, the sentences imposed were not excessive and the appeals were dismissed.

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