Drug users who pass on small amounts of narcotics to friends could be spared jail under new sentencing guidelines recognising for the first time different intents and levels of seriousness among dealers.
An official directive for judges published today will recommend that gang members playing minor parts in drug dealing operations are also given non-custodial community sentences, even if they are caught with thousands of pounds of Class A substances such as cocaine or heroin.
So-called "drug mules", who smuggle narcotics into the country often while being exploited through violence, intimidation or trafficking by powerful cartels, could also escape prison sentences under the advice from the Sentencing Council.
Leading figures within groups dealing or importing drugs could be treated more severely, however, while those who sell to under-18s will also face tougher sentences. The guidelines will also officially identify medicinal use as a legitimate mitigating factor in cannabis cases.
The changes met with the approval of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who said they offered police "consistent guidance yet still provides the courts with flexibility to deal with each case on its own merits where appropriate". Lord Justice Hughes, Deputy Chairman of the Sentencing Council, said that drug dealers should still "expect substantial jail sentences".
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