It is common for officers at airports and other ports of entry to intercept people carrying controlled drugs in their luggage, clothing or inside their bodies on behalf of suppliers in foreign jurisdictions. The colloquial term for such people is ‘mule’. They may have been pressured into carrying the drugs or have done so for a fee, or both.
On occasion large quantities are found, but sometimes it is merely the leftovers from a holiday or business trip abroad, maybe at a location where drug use is more widely tolerated by law enforcement.
Committing this offence can however result in severe consequences.
Drugs are brought into the jurisdiction in a number of supposedly ingenious ways. Cocaine may be moved in its liquid form while disguised as something else. Human carriers may swallow a number of pellets containing drugs of different kinds. Naturally, the police and associated organisations are frequently uncovering these methods as they arise, resulting in those who run the gauntlet being charged and sent to prison for a significant term despite initially thinking they have outwitted their opponents.
The underlying offence is breaching the prohibition on the importation and exportation of controlled drugs created by section 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This prohibition is paired with the substantive offence which is contained in section 170 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979.
Various factors will alter the sentence imposed upon someone who either pleads guilty or is found guilty of this offence. These include the role played by the individual in the activity, the amount and character of the substance in question and (as with almost every offence) their level of co-operation with the police.
The sentences here are generally heavy, prison almost always follows for even the smallest quantity of drug, and sentences of 10 – 20 years, or more, are common where the quantity is large.
There are however a large number of factors that might reduce the seriousness of the offence or provide valuable mitigation – it is essential that a solicitor explore these on your behalf.
The maximum penalties for this offence vary depending on the type of drugs in question:
– Class A, life imprisonment;
– Class B and C, 14 years’ imprisonment;
Conversely, the appellant in Burns  EWCA Crim 1123 received an increased sentence upon a reference by the Attorney-General, from 8 years to 14 years’ imprisonment, to better reflect the fact that he had abused his professional role as a distribution supervisor by allowing cocaine importations.
There is a comprehensive sentencing guideline that Judges use in order to decide sentence.