5 February 2010

POLICE ACCUSED OF 80-FOLD MARK UP ON DRUG VALUES

Duncan Campbell on how over-valuation affects sentencing

The prosecution in a drugs case which finished this week over-estimated the value of the drugs seized by 80 times a court has accepted. The case, which finished this week at Croydon Crown Court, is the latest example in what drug experts claim is the frequent over-valuation of seizures which can lead to heavier prison sentences or long periods in jail on remand.Matthew Atha, a drugs researcher and consultant from Wigan, who gave evidence in the latest case, has been asked to access values in more than 30 recent cases. He said the latest was the greatest over-valuation he had come across.The case involved two men from Orpington, Kent, who had been growing cannabis plants on a table in their flat. Eighty four seedlings and 40 'mother' plants of what was alleged to be 'skunk', a strong form of cannabis, which originates in Afghanistan, was found.

The men, John Hone and Colin Bevan, were arrested last July. When magistrates were told by the prosecution that the police estimate of the value of the drugs was £800,000, the men were refused bail. Such a high value clearly indicated the men were involved in the production of drugs for sale. But this week, Mr Atha told the court that the total value of the plants was less than £10,000. The men, who pleaded guilty to the production of an illegal drug, were each jailed for 12 months. One was released immediately because of the time spent inside on remand. The other was detained because of another existing sentence."This is the highest over-valuation, I have ever come across," said Mr Atha, who has been an expert witness in cases since 1991 and has a background in drugs and chemical research. Mr Atha said magistrates were particularly badly informed. "They are too willing to accept unsubstantiated estimates," he said. "Usually they are given only one valuation, by the prosecution, which they accept." He had come across another recent case in Yorkshire where 'skunk' seized had been estimated at £200,000, which he believed was about 50 times it's value.

Mr Atha said that in every case he had been involved in, whether advising the defence or the Crown Prosecution Service, the police estimate of the value of the drugs had been too high.Greg Poulter, of the drugs advice agency, Release, who also frequently gives evidence of the value of drugs in court, said "Often the police grossly exaggerate the potential value of the (cannabis) plant." The police sometimes calculated the value of drugs through test purchases, but this gave an inaccurate picture as dealers routinely over-charged people they did not know. Courts were handing down sentences based on officers' opinions and not on hard fact, he said.Mr Atha said many of his cases had involved home grown cannabis, with estimates being made as to the value of the plants based on the size the plant would reach in it's natural environment."

The plants grown here tend to reach three to four foot compared with eight or ten in a tropical climate."A spokeswoman from the Magistrates Association said magistrates were in the hands of the prosecution when it came to drug estimates. They normally decided whether to pass a case to Crown Court on the basis of whether the drugs were for personal use or for sale.

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