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Drugs and the police

It’s good to know your rights in case you’re found with drugs on you.

If you’re stopped and searched by the police

The police can stop and search you if they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that you’re in possession of a controlled drug, a weapon or stolen goods.

Reasonable suspicion could include you acting suspiciously or fitting the description of a criminal seen in the area.

Before you’re searched the police officer has to tell you:

  • their name and police station
  • what they expect to find, for example drugs
  • the reason for the search
  • why they are legally allowed to search you
  • your rights.

Being searched in public

On the street the police can ask to check or remove your coat or gloves or see the contents of your bag.

They should do a more thorough search out of public view, not on the street.

It’s good to remember that you’re free to film the ‘stop and search’ with your phone – the police have no power to stop you filming or photographing an incident. It might be a good idea to ask the police officer and the person being searched for permission first though.

Being searched in private

If the police think you have drugs on you they can take you to the police station for a more intimate search without needing to arrest you.

If nothing is found on you, you’ll be allowed to go, but details of the search will be recorded.

You don’t have to give your name, address or date of birth unless you’re caught with drugs or are being reported for an offence. If you’re carrying anything illegal you can be arrested.

Vehicle search

Police can search your vehicle even if you’re not there – but they must leave a notice saying what they’ve done.

More information on ‘stop and search’ from ››

Search of premises

Remember that you don’t have to let police officers into your home unless they have a warrant.

The powers of entry are limited to situations where officers are pursuing a fugitive, hear cries for help from within the property or are trying to enforce an arrest warrant.

If you’re taken into custody

If you’re arrested, try to stay calm – getting worked up makes the situation worse. Ask the police why they’re arresting you if they don’t tell you.

The police can hold you for up to 24 hours without charge – after that, they have to either charge you or release you.

If there’s not enough evidence to charge you, you can be released on bail to return later for more questioning.

Being arrested is not the same as being charged for an offence. After arrest the police may decide not to charge you and let you go.

At a police station the police can take the following without your consent:

  • photos
  • fingerprints
  • DNA samples
  • oral and skin swabs

They’ll need your written consent to take samples of blood, urine, semen, pubic hair or impressions of your teeth.

Intimate body searches (including taking off more than outer clothes)

These are usually only carried out with consent – unless the police suspect you’ve swallowed drugs or are carrying a weapon. They can also be carried out if you’ve been arrested with the authority of a warrant.

Being questioned

When you’re questioned at the station, the interview is recorded.

You have the right to stay silent and have regular breaks.

You’ll be asked if you want to speak to a solicitor. You have a right to this free legal advice. Always say yes. Never think you can handle the situation yourself. Don’t let the police persuade you that speaking to a solicitor will slow things down or keep you there longer.

Telling people you’re at the police station

A lot of people wrongly think you have the right to make one phone call.

In fact, you have two rights:

  • to have someone told of your arrest, and
  • to get legal advice from a solicitor.

The police sergeant who booked you into the police station will make the phone calls to friends or family.

This sergeant also decides whether to let you talk to friends or family yourself.

The sergeant will contact any solicitor you have details of. If you don’t have a particular solicitor in mind, you can get free legal advice from the duty solicitor attached to the police station.

More advice

You’ll be asked to sign your ‘custody record’. Read it before signing, making sure it gives the exact reason for your arrest and that it confirms you want a solicitor.

Although you may just want to get out of the station, don’t sign any statement without legal advice. If in doubt say nothing until you see a solicitor.

If you have HIV

If you’ve got HIV this should only be an issue if you need medical help or medication, otherwise you don’t need to tell the police, even if they ask you.

If you need medication, ask to see the police surgeon. Remind the police surgeon to keep your conversation confidential.

If you’re given a penalty notice for disorder

Carrying weed or appearing drunk in public usually carry a penalty notice, although you can only get one of those if you’re 18 or over.

You won’t get a criminal conviction if you pay the penalty. You don’t have to pay up front to the officer handing you the notice – you can pay online, but it’s important to pay by the deadline to avoid higher fees.

If you’re offered a caution

For minor offences, you may be offered a caution. This is like a police warning to those who admit they’re guilty of a minor offence.

If you accept a caution it may be brought up in court if you’re charged with another offence. You’ll also have to tell potential employers that you have a caution when applying for certain types of jobs.

If you don’t accept the caution, you can be arrested and charged with the crime.

If you already have had a caution for a similar offence you may be passed on to a magistrate’s court for a possible fine or a short prison sentence.

A caution is not the same as a conviction, so if you’re asked on forms, for example whether you’ve been convicted of an offence, you can reply ‘no’.

Conditional cautions

You might also be offered a caution that carries certain conditions with it – for example, going for treatment if you have a substance misuse problem. You could be charged with a crime if you don’t accept those conditions.

Driving offences

Driving while under the influence of drugs carries the same penalties as driving under the influence of alcohol.

More information about your legal rights is available from Other useful information can be found at Ask the Police.

Scotland has its own code for stop and search.

Next section: Sex and drugs ››

‹‹ Previous: Drugs and the law

Published: 30/08/2018
Next review: 30/08/2021