Drugs

This Is What Will Actually Happen If You're Caught with Drugs in the UK

A primer on the kind of trouble you'll find yourself in if you're busted for drug possession in the UK.

by Sirin Kale
Oct 15 2015, 2:55pm

Photo by Michael Segalov, from "I Walked Around Bestival Asking to Test People's Drugs"

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We were all taught certain important facts at school. For example: masturbating too much makes you blind; if you don't wash your genitals daily you'll get a venereal disease; if you smoke a cigarette while you're chewing gum you'll instantly get mouth cancer. We also got taught that drugs are bad—that one ecstasy pill will kill you dead and that if you hang out with people who take drugs your whole life will definitely go to shit and you'll end up dying in a squat house surrounded by broken glass and feral cats.

Most of us grew up and gained a little more perspective on that last one, but few really know what kind of trouble you'll actually get into if you're busted for drug possession.

What we do know is that, if you're black, you'll get into much more trouble than anyone else. Black people in the UK are six times more likely to be searched for drugs than white people, despite the fact that, statistically, people of African and Caribbean heritage take fewer drugs. And this disproportionality extends all the way through to sentencing; black people caught in possession of weed are five times more likely to be charged with a criminal offense than white people.

But in an ideal world, where the police department isn't infested with institutional racism and the justice system treats all people as equals, what would happen to you if you were caught with an amount clearly intended for personal use? One bomb of MDMA, say, or a gram of blow? To find out, I spoke to a couple of experts: Niamh Eastwood from Release, a center specializing in UK drug law, and Tom (not his real name), a former nightclub bouncer.

Photo by Michael Segalov, from "I Walked Around Bestival Asking to Test People's Drugs"

Class As – LSD, Pills, MDMA, Coke, Crack, Heroin, Mushrooms, Crystal Meth

Unless you feel the need to pop some molly to really sink into that Instagram house playlist on the way to work, chances are anyone taking class A party drugs is going to be doing so while partying on a night out. And if you approach the door with your lower jaw straining to reach your nose on that night out, chances are the bouncer's going to notice.

"If I caught you with any drugs on the door, they'd be taken off you and you're not coming in," says Tom, who spent six years bouncing in clubs in London and Leeds. "Inside the club, it depends more on circumstance and what drug it is. If I caught someone doing coke, I probably wouldn't throw him or her out; I'd just take it off them. If you're not aggressive, I'll just confiscate it. I'm not going to let people be seen using drugs publicly—that's the same for powders, pills... I'll just take them off you."

Most bouncers, contrary to what you might think, aren't there to confiscate your drugs—they're more concerned with checking for weapons and keeping people safe. "Look, if you're stupid enough to get caught doing [drugs]... it's not that hard to hide drug use," says Tom. "People aren't going to look under a toilet door unless there are four feet poking out from there, or an entire conversation going on in a cubicle."

If you are dumb enough to get caught, it's unlikely Tom would call the police on you. "I would very rarely call the police about drug use in a club. Violence, yeah. Drug use, no," he tells me. "Unless someone's actually hurt—overdosing, you know. Or if I've caught someone trying to spike a drink."

If the police do bust you, predictably, it's not going to end all that well. Legally, possession of a class A could land you up to seven years in prison, or an unlimited fine, or both. Even for mushrooms. Even if you just literally found them growing under that bench over there and didn't know what they were and weren't going to do anything with them. There's a chance that you'll get off scot-free, as police in the UK have the discretionary power not to enforce the law in certain situations—but don't bank on it.

Once you've been arrested, you're going to be taken to a police station for an interview. Eastwood warns: "Never undergo a police interview without having a solicitor present." Once you've been interviewed, the police will either give you a caution—meaning you won't be fined and you're free to go—or they'll charge you with possession and release you on bail to attend court at a later date. Not being a dick to the arresting police officer will help you avoid being charged.

Eastwood clarifies: "If you're cautioned, that means you've admitted you're guilty of the offense and you're happy to accept the charge. A caution is a criminal record, remember."

You want to avoid being charged at all costs. According to Eastwood, over 90 percent of people will be found guilty of a drugs charge in court. "It's a very difficult charge to run a not-guilty on," she says, explaining that drug busts are about as clear-cut as you're going to get: you either have an illicit substance on you (which they test forensically) or you don't. If you go to court and are found guilty, that'll normally stay on your record for around five years, excluding you from lots of professions—accountancy, law, medicine, childcare—and from being granted a US visa.

It's also going to cost you. Eastwood estimates that an average conviction for someone caught carrying a gram of coke would run to around £1,000 [$1,500]—a sum made up of court costs, fines, and the victim surcharge. And if you're a higher earner, expect to pay more, as the fines are indexed to your salary.

The most important thing to do if you're caught with drugs you're planning to put in your body, I'm told, is to make clear that those drugs are only going in your body. Eastwood tells me about someone who was caught with pills in their pocket and tried to evade punishment by shifting some of the blame.

"They said, 'Oh, but one was for my friend.' [By doing that, they] admitted that [they] intended to supply [that person drugs]," she says. "It's really important to remember that the action of supplying drugs has nothing to do with money. It is a very simple act of passing the substance to another person. So you would then be charged with the supply of a class A drug under section 4 of the Misuse of Drugs Act."

Photo by Jake Lewis

Class Bs – Ketamine, Codeine, Amphetamines, Mephedrone, Cannabis

"If I saw someone doing ket on the dancefloor in a club, they'd be thrown out," Tom tells me. "Ketamine makes people really strange and collapse; it's not a very sociable drug. People tend to be hindered by it."

Weed, on the other hand, he's more relaxed about. "If someone was smoking a spliff in the smoking area and it wasn't a massive blunt, I'd probably let it go, if it was in a club and there was a liberal atmosphere."

(Obviously don't take that as gospel; not all bouncers are as chill as Tom.)

From a legal perspective, with the exception of cannabis, you're going to be arrested if you're caught in possession of a class B. The process will be exactly the same as with a class A substance—you're either going to get a caution or be charged and released on bail. The maximum jail time you can get for possession is five years, but you'll still be liable to pay court costs if it does go to trial.

READ ON VICE NEWS: Cannabis Legalization Could Raise Hundreds of Millions for UK Government

The exception to this rule is cannabis. Eastwood explains: "Cannabis comes under a discretionary warning scheme, which can only be enforced under strict circumstances. If you're caught in possession of cannabis and it's your first offense, and it's a small amount, and there are no aggravating conditions [such as you being aggressive/in possession of a weapon], then the guidance allows police officers to issue a warning. That's a warning on the street; it doesn't form a criminal record. If you're caught and it's your second offense, the police can issue what's know as a fixed-term fee notice, which is an on-the-spot fine for £80 [$120]. As long as you pay that within 21 days, there's no criminal record. On the third occasion, you should be arrested and taken to the police station."

Eastwood warns that Release has dealt with people who were arrested for their first offense with weed. If this happens to you, "absolutely in a confident but respectful way, tell the police officer who is arresting you that it's your first offense—try to negotiate the situation; that is what we would encourage," she says.

If they still charge you, she adds, try to have your solicitor move the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service and get a warning issued instead.

Some guys in a Kenyan khat warehouse preparing the drug for transportation to the UK

Class Cs – Steroids, GHB, Khat

Certain class Cs will raise a red flag to a bouncer. "GHB or GBL, because of the association with date rape, you'd definitely be [thrown] out," says Tom.

Possession of a Class C could lead to a fine or two years in prison, although realistically you're looking at a fine. Again, the process is the same: you're arrested and either cautioned or charged.

The exception to this rule is khat—an incredibly mild stimulant that was criminalized in the UK for no good reason a couple of years ago—which falls under the same classification as cannabis: if you're lucky, you'll be given a verbal warning under the discretionary warning scheme and you won't get a criminal record.


If you're a drug user and you think this stuff doesn't apply to you, you're wrong. While figures vary year on year, approximately 60,000 to 70,000 people are criminalized for possession each year in the UK. That's nearly 70,000 criminal records for non-violent crimes, or 70,000 people who will now have their lifetime earnings reduced by up to 19 percent, according to one study.

Taking drugs is a choice, and if it's a choice you're going to make, don't be a dick about it and be aware of your rights, because there's nothing good about becoming part of that statistic.

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