Drug use, drug seizures and drug offences continue to increase within the UK with a total annual cost to society of over £21 billion. In 2021, there were 223,106 drug seizures in England and Wales; this is a 21% increase compared with the previous year resulting in the third consecutive annual increase. Scotland saw a 3% rise from 33,281 to 34,308 seizures and Northern Ireland rose by 3% from 8,186 to 8,428.
The common wholesale prices of cocaine and heroin decreased in 2022, across the UK and the rest of Europe. From January 2022 to December 2022, cocaine prices have dropped by about 30% and heroin prices have fallen by about 33%. The prices are consistent with substantial quantities of the drugs being widely available and easily accessible. Wholesale drug prices are likely to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023.
Drug related deaths through misuse reported in the UK rose from 4,517 in 2020 to 4,564 in 2021. Scotland continues to have the highest numbers of drug related deaths through misuse, 245 deaths per million. In England and Wales, the North East continues to have the highest rates of deaths at 104.1 deaths per million people.
The most recent estimate for the annual consumption of cocaine in England, Scotland and Wales is 117 tonnes. Global cocaine production estimates have increased from 1,886 tonnes in 2020 to 2,132 tonnes in 2021, which is an increase of 246 tonnes. This 13% increase is driven by historical high levels of production in Colombia. Border Force at Southampton Docks recorded the largest seizure of cocaine (3.7 tonnes) since 2015, arriving from Colombia concealed within pallets of bananas.
Drugs continue to transit from South America and Central America to Europe. Ports such as Antwerp and Rotterdam remain key transit hubs for drugs before they enter the UK.
Geopolitical events in 2022 have affected the world heroin market. Opium cultivation and heroin production continued in parts of Afghanistan despite Taliban announcements that they would outlaw the drugs trade in the country. International heroin trafficking has been affected by the war in Ukraine with routes being displaced from the port of Odesa in Ukraine to Romania and Azerbaijan.
Nearly every town and city across England and Wales is affected by county lines supplying heroin and crack cocaine. Most drugs are sourced from major cities including, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield. There are about 600 active lines operating with county lines supply also linked to other offences such as labour exploitation, firearms and violence. Law enforcement activity saw the disruption of 276 active lines in October 2022.
Cannabis is still the most widely used illegal drug in the UK particularly amongst young adults, with 16.2% of 16 to 24-year-olds, 950,000, in England and Wales reporting the use of cannabis this year. Cannabis cultivation in the UK continues at an industrial scale and is often linked to other offences including benefit fraud, energy theft, modern slavery, robbery and violence.
The threat of harm linked to the misuse of synthetic drugs such as benzodiazepines and gabapentinoid drugs has increased. This is particularly through poly drug use which remains significant and indicates an overall upward trend. The abuse of benzodiazepines was involved in 69%, 918 out of 1,330, of all drug misuse deaths in Scotland in 2021. There was also a 13% rise in the numbers of deaths involving any benzodiazepine in England and Wales in 2021, from 476 in 2020 to 538; the number of deaths involving gabapentinoids increased 17.3% from 462 in 2020 to 542 in 2021.
The threat from ketamine in the UK has risen and it is probable the market for this drug is larger in the UK than previously understood. In November, a suspected functioning ketamine lab was discovered in Essex capable of producing notable amounts of this drug.
Afghanistan continues to produce methamphetamine from the naturally growing ephedra plant, with production growing significantly to now reach parity with heroin. Production in the Netherlands has also increased rapidly. Whilst UK consumption remains very low, there has been an increase in exports from the UK to Australia and New Zealand.
Cannabis farms are often linked to other forms of serious and organised crime and provide profits for further crime. Sometimes those working in the farms are victims of modern slavery. Signs to spot cannabis farms include:
If you suspect someone of being involved in drug related crime, including heroin, cocaine, cannabis or synthetic drugs, report to local police by calling 101 or 999 if there is an immediate risk of harm or danger. Alternatively, if you wish to remain anonymous, please contact Crimestoppers.
In May 2022 a man suspected of supplying equipment to illicitly produce benzodiazepines was arrested alongside three other people, as part of an NCA investigation.
The Wiltshire based company, linked to the arrested individuals, was alleged to have been supplying pill presses, stamps and mixing agents to organised crime groups.
These groups were making and distributing Benzodiazepines pills (which are also referred to as 'street Valium' and 'street benzos') pills in Scotland. These pills are sold cheaply and they are linked to a growing number of drug related deaths across Britain, particularly in Scotland.
Items such as machinery and mixing agents consistent with pill making were seized as a result of this investigation.