The Sentencing Council has published its findings as part of a 12 week consultation which runs until April 7, citing a number of changes to the illegal drug market.
Since 2012, there have been new drugs coming onto the market, including in particular new types of synthetic cannabinoids and strong opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil.
There have also been changes in the way in which drug offences are committed. This includes the continued rise in “county lines” dealing in which criminal gangs receive orders for drugs using dedicated phone lines and transport those drugs from city hubs to smaller towns and rural areas. Such offending is often accompanied by increased violence and exploitation of children and vulnerable adults.
The other significant change is the use of the internet to enable these offences, including using the so-called “dark web” to sell drugs, which can be delivered by mail.
Lord Justice Holroyde, chairman of the Sentencing Council, said: “The nature of offending is changing and we are seeing more vulnerable people including children being exploited either through grooming or coercion.
The Council is also considering adding new factors when sentencing criminals who play a leading role in drug offences.
A spokesman said: “These factors relate to the systematic exploitation of young and vulnerable people, and to the practice known as “cuckooing”: occupying the home of a vulnerable individual to use as a base for selling drugs.
“In Importation cases, there is a similar type of factor in which the offender has used a vehicle belonging to an otherwise innocent third party to transport drugs. The Council regards these factors as very serious aspects of offending, so has decided to place these in the “Leading role” category, but is seeking views on how these factors might work in practice.”
Drug offences are high volume offences in criminal courts. In 2018 there were around 31,900 adult offenders sentenced for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Psychoactive Substances Act.
Researchers looked at the penalties received by 14,000 defendants aged between 26 and 50 for possession with intent to supply between April 2012 and March 2015.
They found that for a class B drug, 37 per 100 white offenders would be expected to receive an immediate custodial sentence, compared with 46 of Asian, 44 of black and 46 of Chinese and other ethnicities.
For a class A substance, around 93 white offenders, 95 Asian offenders and 95 black offenders per 100 would be expected to be jailed.
The length of sentence also differed, with Asian offenders being jailed for an average of 4 per cent longer, equal to around one month extra, than white counterparts.
Black and Other ethnicity offenders did not have statistically different sentences to white offenders.
The researchers also compared men and women, and found that 37 per cent of men would be expected to be jailed for possession with intent to supply a class B drug, compared with 20 per cent of women.
The Sentencing Council is asking for feedback on whether the current guidelines for judges and magistrates could lead to discrimination.