The use of illegal drugs, particularly Class A, impacts on the social and economic well being of the country, including its reputation overseas. The Government’s organised crime strategy sets out that drug trafficking to the UK costs an estimated £10.7 billion per year. Drug smuggling by organised criminals is a major threat. Class A drugs, specifically heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine and ecstasy, are widely available throughout the UK.

Almost 213 tonnes of drugs seized in our first year

Organised crime involvement in drug trafficking

The UK illegal drugs market remains extremely attractive to organised criminals. The prices charged at street level are some of the highest in Europe, and are sufficient to repay the costs of smuggling the drugs into the UK.

The traditional distinction between international importers and the UK-based wholesalers is becoming more blurred, with some regional wholesalers travelling to the continent to arrange their own imports.

British organised criminals are active at all levels of the UK drugs trade, from importing to street-level distribution. A large number of foreign nationals are also heavily involved in the illegal drugs trade in the UK. Some have cultural and familial ties to the countries the drugs come from or travel through – this makes it easier for them to take major roles in the trade.

Drug supply to the UK

Heroin trafficking

The amount of heroin estimated to be imported annually into the UK is between 18-23 tonnes. The vast majority of this is derived from Afghan opium.

Pakistan is a major transit country for Afghan opiates with well established ethnic and familial links to the UK. Heroin trafficked via Pakistan to the UK is likely to have either been sent directly by parcel, air courier or maritime container; or been trafficked by sea onto eastern or southern Africa for onward movement.

Iran is another important gateway for Afghan opiates, which are trafficked west from Afghanistan, often en route to Turkey and western Europe.

Opiates also leave Afghanistan and enter Central Asia, however this routing primarily supplies the Russian heroin market and little is thought to be directed at the UK from this ‘northern route’.

In Europe, the Balkans is an important transport nexus with crime groups utilising long-established trafficking routes, while the Netherlands plays a strategically important role for organising the importation of heroin into the UK market.

Cocaine trafficking

The amount of cocaine estimated to be imported annually into the UK is between 25-30 tonnes.

A significant proportion of the UK’s identified cocaine supply is produced in Colombia, or from the border areas of neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador. Peru and Bolivia account for the remainder and, unlike Colombia, have seen production levels rise, increasing their potential threat to the UK.

Various routes and methods are used to get the cocaine to the UK, one of Europe’s largest and most profitable markets. Traditionally, most of the cocaine destined for Europe, including the UK, has crossed the Atlantic by ship and entered via Spain. The most significant method currently used to smuggle bulk amounts is in maritime container ships arriving in European hub ports, such as Antwerp and Rotterdam, before being moved into the UK. 

The use of other maritime methods, such as yachts, general cargo vessels, air couriers and cargo are also significant. Traffickers use varied routings with many shipments passing through South American countries, such as Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, as well as the Caribbean and West Africa while en route to Europe. Crime groups based in key European countries, such as Spain and the Netherlands, help facilitate this trade.

Synthetics and new psychoactive substances

Synthetic drugs are defined as artificial substances produced for the illicit market, almost entirely manufactured from chemical compounds in illicit laboratories. Those most commonly seen in the EU and trafficked to the UK are known as amphetamine type stimulants (ATS): amphetamine, methylamphetamine and 3, 4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) commonly referred to as ‘ecstasy’. The UK continues to be considered as the major market for amphetamine and MDMA in the EU. 

The UK drugs market has seen diversification through the emergence of a variety of new psychoactive substances (NPS), commonly referred to as ‘legal highs’. However, this name is in itself misleading as frequently these substances contain controlled drugs. This has led to associated health problems among users. The marketing and sale continues to take place on the internet presenting challenges for law enforcement to control their sale and distribution.


Cannabis is still the most widely used illegal drug in the UK and the UK wholesale cannabis market is worth almost GBP 1 billion a year.  The NCA estimates that 270 tonnes of cannabis is needed to satisfy annual UK user demand. Most of this is herbal skunk cannabis. Despite increasing domestic cultivation most cannabis in the UK is still imported via all modes of transport.

Afghanistan and Morocco are source countries for cannabis resin. Herbal cannabis is also smuggled into the UK from south African countries, the Caribbean and the Netherlands. There is no evidence to suggest the UK exports commercial quantities of cannabis.

UK distribution

Once the drugs have been successfully brought into the UK, they have traditionally been transported to major cities such as London, Liverpool and Birmingham before being distributed. Many other cities and large towns act as secondary distribution points, with drugs moved in bulk before being sold on to local dealers.

Drugs destined for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are mostly routed via England, reflecting the extensive use of the Channel ports.

Cutting Agents

Most drugs are ‘cut’ by adding adulterants to increase their volume. Generally, adulterants used are chosen because they match the appearance of the drug being cut, mimic its effects or alter it in a sought-after way.  Cutting can happen at any point in the chain and often takes place several times before the drugs reach the end user.

Cutting agents now integrally feature within the UK drugs trade and suppliers have developed stronger links with organised drugs traffickers. Cutting agents are bought from businesses outside the UK, primarily in China and India. Criminals have adapted their importation methodology to avoid detection at UK and other European borders by mis-describing loads.

There has been an increase in the importation of cutting agents for heroin. Levels of heroin adulteration were higher in 2011 than during 2010 and the most common type of cutting agents were caffeine and paracetamol. The increased use of active pharmaceutical ingredients such as benzocaine, lidocaine and phenacetin for bulking cocaine maximises profit margins for drug traffickers and distributors, but has led to low purity at street level, ranging between 8 and 20% in 2011/12.

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