Young People, Drugs and the Law

Young people, drugs and the law


The information here is for young people under 18 years old. For penalties for young people aged 18 and over, please visit one of the sites below:

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The consequences described here might vary from area to area. If you need to be sure, contact your local drug service (the links to all services in Wales are on our homepage).


What can the police do if they think I’m carrying drugs?


If the police suspect a young person of carrying illegal drugs, they can stop the young person, detain (hold) and search them.

By ‘illegal drugs’ we mean substances that are either:

  • illegal for anyone to possess (like cannabis); or
  • illegal for you to possess unless you have a prescription, in your name (like diazepam)


The law that allows the police to do this is the ‘Stop and Search Regulations.’


If the police find anything on you that they suspect might be illegal drugs, they will confiscate (keep) the substance and send it away to be tested, which will identify what it is. They might arrest you on suspicion of being in possession of a controlled substance. The police will also check the Police National Computer to see if you already have an offending history (have been convicted of offences before).  Whether they arrest you or not will depend on the particular circumstances. You are more likely to be arrested if:

  • the police are pretty sure that the substance is illegal drugs, but you’re denying it
  • if you have previous convictions for possession of controlled substances (illegal drugs)


If you’re arrested


If the police arrest you, they will keep you in a police cell until they can interview you. This is a compulsory interview – you don’t have the right to refuse it. You do have the right to have a solicitor present.  If you are under 18, the police must arrange for a responsible adult to be with you for the interview. This is usually a parent or other adult family member, but could be a Social Worker. It can take time to organise all this, so you might be in the cell for several hours before you’re interviewed. The interview will be recorded.


After the interview, you will be released on Police Bail until the result of the test on the substance you were carrying comes back. You will be given a date to return for interview again, in about four weeks’ time.



If you’re not arrested


If you’re not arrested at the time, the police will arrange for you to come into the police station for a voluntary interview, at a later date. You will agree the date and time of this interview. You will have to sign a statement in the police notebook, admitting that you were carrying illegal drugs.  You will be released on Police Bail until the test results come back.  You will be allowed to go home on the agreement that you come in for the voluntary interview at a later date.


You have the same rights at that interview as you would if you’d been arrested – the right to a solicitor and an appropriate adult to be with you. Even if the test results come back before the interview date and show that the substance is an illegal drug, you won’t be arrested – the police will wait to interview you at the date you’ve agreed with them. If you don’t turn up at the interview, the police may then arrest you.


After the test result comes back


If you confess to carrying an illegal drug, or if you deny it but the test shows that you were carrying an illegal drug, the police will contact the Youth Offending Service and give YOS the information that they have about you (what drug it was, whether you’ve got previous convictions, etc). YOS will consider the information and decide what will happen next, depending on your circumstances.  A number of options are available, and which one you get will depend on how serious your offence is and whether it is your first offence or not.


  • Less serious offences and first offences:


For a low level first offence you would receive a Restorative Justice Disposal. ‘Low level’ means less serious (for example, if the drug you were carrying was a Class C category, and you didn’t have much of it). With a RJD, your circumstances are assessed and the YOS team will put things in place to try to meet what it thinks your needs are. For example, if your offence is drug-related, you will be required to work with a drug worker to look at reducing, controlling or stopping your drug use. You have to cooperate with these things.


RJDs also involve victim work or community work, which are things you do to show that you are sorry for what you have done


RJDs are recorded as No Further Action on Police National Computer; they are not a criminal record.


RJDs are decided by YOS alone.


  • More serious offences and second and third offences:


All offences more serious than RJD are assessed at a Bureau. A Bureau is a panel of people who get together to look at the information about you and decide together what to do. Bureau panels involve a police inspector or sergeant, a caseworker and police officer from YOS and a volunteer community panel member.


More serious first offences, and second and third offences, usually result in a Pre-Court Caution. The caution is itself a penalty, and goes onto your criminal record. There are three kinds of caution:


  • a straight Youth Caution – this has no conditions or things you have to do attached to it
  • a Youth Caution with voluntary interventions – this has things that you agree to do, to meet your own needs – like drug work – or to show that you’re sorry – like community work
  • a Youth Conditional Caution – this has compulsory interventions. These are the same things, but you have to do them whether you’ve agreed to them or not; if you don’t comply, you will be sent to Youth Court (see below)


These are all recorded on your record on the Police National Computer; they are not a formal (official) criminal record, but they are official police records and they are never removed. If you ever go for a job where you have to have a thorough criminal records check (an ‘Enhanced Disclosure’) these cautions will show up.  Any job where you will be coming into contact with vulnerable people or children requires an Enhanced Disclosure.


If you have been given a caution before, for a previous offence, and have now offended again, the Youth Offending Service would decide whether another caution would be appropriate. If YOS feel that a caution wouldn’t work, they will recommend that you be sent to Youth Court.



  • More serious offences still:


If RJDs and cautions don’t stop you from offending, the Bureau will probably decide to send you to Youth Court.  Breaking the conditions of a Youth Conditional Caution will also result in Youth Court. You will have to appear in court – the Youth Court at the Magistrates Court – and the judge will impose one of two things on you.


  • Referral Order. This lasts for 6 months to 2 years and includes long term interventions and victim work – the same things that you got with RJDs and cautions, but more in depth, and for longer
  • Youth Rehabilitation Order. This lasts for between 3 months and 2 years and includes interventions (like drug work) and restrictions (like with bail – curfews, for example).


  • Most serious offences:


These would be offences involving Class A drugs, or carrying on offending after you already have lots of convictions and have been given RJDs, Referral Orders and YROs before. For the most serious offences, the Youth Rehabilitation Order would include custody in a Youth Offending Institution (prison for young people).