Drugs: An Old Threat Made New

On the up: rates of drug use, drug offences and drug-related harms have all increased over the last decade in the UK. Image: serpeblu / Adobe Stock

This is the seventh in a series of articles analysing the top 10 serious and organised crime threats to the UK and how they have evolved over a decade. This article traces the journey of the threat and response to drugs – an intractable problem that has contributed to a rise in serious violence over the last decade.

Across the UK, drug markets are booming. Over the last 10 years, rates of drug use, drug offences and drug-related harms have all increased, with an estimated annual cost to society of over £21 billion. Drug-related deaths through misuse are at record highs, with Scotland still accounting for the highest numbers. Shifts in drug markets also help to explain increasing serious violence since 2014. Underpinning this, the global availability of drugs has never been higher, with domestic production presenting further challenges.

A Thriving Market

Cannabis remains the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. This is pronounced among young adults: in England and Wales, 15% of those aged 16 to 24 reported using cannabis in the year to March 2023. Notably, recent years have seen a rise in the amount of cannabis smuggled into the country from the US and Canada, where changes in legislation have resulted in overproduction.

However, the majority (86%) of drug-related costs to society are linked to heroin and crack cocaine markets. Both have seen major shifts, reflecting underlying global factors. Between 2013 and 2021 (the latest data available), there was a 255% increase in global production of cocaine, driven largely by increases in Colombia. In parallel, the area utilised for opium poppy production in Afghanistan – which supplies more than 80% of the world’s opium – increased by 11% between 2013 and 2022 (prior to the recent ban imposed by the Taliban).

The result has been an increase in purity. Between 2013 and 2018, the mean retail purity of powder cocaine in the UK rose from 38% to 63%, crack purity increased from 36% to 77%, and heroin purity rose from 29% to 46%. Despite a ‘higher quality’ product, street prices have largely remained flat or even fallen slightly over the decade. This implies that the market is saturated, with supply outpacing demand.

As one would expect given these trends, overall domestic consumption has increased. The 2012/13 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 2.7 million adults had taken an illicit drug in the previous year. This figure rose in the run-up to the Covid pandemic to 3.2 million in the year ending March 2020, before dropping to 3 million in the year to June 2022 – still higher than 10 years prior.

Meanwhile, synthetic drug markets have diversified, comprising new substances and customer bases. The UK has not seen the death rates from fentanyl witnessed in the US, where a deepening crisis saw 73,654 overdose deaths in 2022. However, there has been recent concern over nitazenes, with UK deaths forensically linked to this drug class totalling 76 from 1 June to 31 December 2023. An additional 10 nitazenes and brorphine were made Class A substances in February 2023.

Shifting Trafficking Dynamics

These trends have emerged as traffickers have adapted to global events and shifting market dynamics. In terms of heroin, trafficking routes from Afghanistan have been displaced by the war in Ukraine and now pass through countries such as Azerbaijan and Romania. In terms of cocaine, while significant amounts continue to be trafficked via Dutch and Belgian ports, recent years have seen a growing dominance of traffickers from the Balkans – especially Albania – in bringing cocaine into the UK.

New technology has facilitated an increasingly lucrative online trade, changing how drugs are sold to UK consumers. Use of both the clear and dark web, as well as developments in virtual currencies and anonymised payment systems, have allowed criminals to reduce risks (and therefore costs). Reflecting changes in the wider economy, transactions have increasingly shifted towards a ‘just-in-time’ delivery model; in June 2022, 39% of adults stated that it was ‘easy’ to obtain drugs within 24 hours.

Often linked to web-enabled transactions, the use of post and fast parcel services to traffic drugs has also increased. This has occurred as overall volumes of parcel traffic have expanded, challenging law enforcement agencies’ capacity to intercept all but a fraction of suspicious packages.

Finally, as the drugs threat has evolved, so have the sources of production. The last decade has seen burgeoning illegal domestic cannabis production, which is closely linked to labour exploitation. There is also evidence of a rise in the domestic production of amphetamines, ecstasy and anaesthetic GHB (although these are still predominantly produced in Belgium and the Netherlands).

Rising Serious Violence

All this has had a tangible impact on rates of serious violence. Notably, shifts in the drugs threat help to explain the changing geography of violence in the UK, with the fastest increases occurring in rural areas and provincial towns.

Budget cuts have led forces to prioritise more ‘reactive’ policing functions, impacting the kind of proactive activity on which effective drug enforcement depends

Since 2013, knife crime has risen fastest in Surrey, Norfolk, Gwent and Hertfordshire, reflecting the operation of ‘county lines’ networks. These networks have grown as dealers have adopted new models of trade, exploiting vulnerable children such as care leavers to open markets outside major cities. Although estimates have fluctuated, the National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that 600 ‘deal lines’ linked to county lines networks are currently operational.

Overall, the proportion of homicides related to drugs has grown from 43% in 2012 to 52% in 2022. Drugs remain closely linked with firearms and have fuelled a rise in theft and robbery: 62% of those convicted of theft and 47% of those convicted of robbery in 2020 had a history of drug offences. Research by Crest and the Tony Blair Institute has similarly found that young people involved in street robbery – both victims and perpetrators – are disproportionately likely to be involved in the drugs trade.

Keeping Up with the Drugs Threat?

Although the drugs threat continues to account for significant operational effort, increased political and law-enforcement focus on other threats – from child sexual abuse to modern slavery and human trafficking – has seen a shift in the relative prioritisation of drugs over the last decade.

In parallel, budget cuts have led forces to prioritise more ‘reactive’ policing functions, impacting the kind of proactive activity on which effective drug enforcement depends. Qualitative research by Gavin Hales published in 2021 suggests that a police focus on short-term, tactical intelligence, combined with NCA concern regarding wholesalers, has left intelligence gaps around middle markets.

Tellingly, between 2015/16 and 2022/23, arrests for drug offences in England and Wales fell from 73,492 to 60,705 (although the latest figures represent a slight increase on 2021/22). In parallel, between 2014 and 2022, convictions for drug offences fell by 14% (from 84,591 to 66,721).

Seizures tell a more nuanced story. While cannabis seizures declined from 149,271 in 2013/14 to 131,668 in the year ending March 2022, Class A seizures increased from 32,856 in 2013/14 to 37,113 in the year ending March 2022. The volume of Class A drugs seized in the process rose from 4,104 kg in 2013/14 to 20,222 kg in 2021/22, reflecting a strengthened law-enforcement focus on the higher-harm aspects of the threat.

Meanwhile, Operation Venetic – the most significant of its kind in the UK, targeting the encrypted communications platform EncroChat – has resulted in improvements to law enforcement’s understanding of the drugs threat.

Yet supply-side interventions can only go so far, with a need for effective demand-reduction and other actions in parallel. This has been borne out by the results of an independent review of drugs policy, commissioned by then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid in 2019 and led by Dame Carol Black.

Black’s conclusions were stark. The review found that ‘Previous Governments have de-prioritised these problems – from drugs entering the country right through to helping drug users access appropriate treatment’. Among other issues, it described ‘young people and children … pulled into drugs supply on an alarming scale’; funding reductions ‘exacerbating gaps in treatment provision’; and most national indicators of performance for treatment ‘going in the wrong direction’.

Efforts have been made to respond to these findings. In 2021, the Home Office announced a new 10-year drugs plan to ‘cut crime and save lives’. Described as a ‘landmark moment’, the plan – ‘From Harm to Hope’ – committed to delivering ‘real change’ by reducing drug-related crime, deaths, harm and use, underpinned by a record investment of over £3 billion for 2022–25.

A sustained and determined focus on advancing commitments across the 10-year drugs plan is needed, building on the foundations established in areas such as prevention and the treatment and recovery priority

Presented as the ‘first ever’ strategy committing the whole of government and public services to ‘work together and share responsibility’ on the issue, ‘From Harm to Hope’ was welcomed across the system. The strongest element was a promise to deliver the key recommendations of Black’s review, including re-establishing funding for treatment and recovery to create a ‘world-class’ system in England. An additional £780 million over three years was allocated to ramping up capacity (although the net effect would only be to restore what had been cut since 2010).

Other milestones over the decade predate this, including the passage of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. This introduced a blanket ban on the production, supply, possession with intent to supply, import and export of substances likely to be used for their psychoactive effects. Use initially declined in response but remains high in rough-sleeping and prison populations, while challenges surround the continued development of new substances.

On county lines, the National County Lines Coordination Centre was operationalised in 2018 to facilitate intelligence sharing on the links between criminal exploitation and drug markets. In 2019, the County Lines Programme was launched, while Project ADDER was mobilised in 2020 as an intensive, whole-system approach to tackling drug misuse, combining ‘targeted and tougher policing with enhanced treatment and recovery services’.

Further developments include the formation of the Joint Combating Drugs Unit in 2021, bringing together multiple government departments and charged with monitoring implementation of the 10-year drugs plan, headed by a dedicated Combating Drugs Minister. The introduction of the Serious Violence Duty in 2022 represented another notable step, as did the 2023 commitment to roll out the ‘Clear, Hold, Build’ pilot across England and Wales as an end-to-end partnership approach to tackling organised crime at the local level.

What Comes Next?

The government cannot afford to be as passive about drug markets in the next decade. A range of potential shifts in the threat will need to be planned for and mitigated. These include the impacts of the 2022 Taliban ban on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan; given that the country accounts for the vast majority of heroin in UK markets, any gaps risk being filled by dangerous synthetic opioids. A 95% decline in opium cultivation and production in Afghanistan was registered from 2022–23 and, while there are not yet signs of a shortage in the UK, this could soon be felt. The methamphetamine threat must also be monitored, with production in Afghanistan – as well as the Netherlands – increasing.

Meanwhile, key issues persist around the management of the UK cannabis market. Here, consumption remains high and debates around decriminalisation continue. Crucially, alongside increased imports from the US and Canada, industrial-scale illegal domestic cannabis cultivation and the attendant links to modern slavery and human trafficking, robbery and energy theft continue to present complex challenges.

Domestic production in other areas must also continue to be monitored. In late 2022, the discovery of a suspected functioning ketamine lab in Essex – able to produce significant quantities – highlighted another aspect of this threat. In 2023, the NCA warned of a growing ketamine threat, with the market likely to be ‘larger in the UK than previously understood’.

Finally, greater action is needed on chemical precursors, particularly for drugs that have yet to take hold in the UK. Here, a scaling up of support for the strengthening of legislation in key countries could help address threats in advance.

Supply-side action must be taken amid sustained effort in other areas. Reflecting on developments since 2021, Black noted that ‘although encouraged by the progress … I would like us to be more agile in the years ahead’. She called for increased ambition – particularly around prevention – looking ‘beyond drug-specific interventions at the wider factors affecting young people, such as school attendance, economic opportunity, and recreation’.

Key to achieving this will be a sustained and determined focus on advancing commitments across the 10-year drugs plan, building on the foundations established in areas such as prevention and the treatment and recovery priority. Amid soaring costs to society and record highs in drug-related deaths through misuse, the public health of the UK depends on it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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Harvey Redgrave

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