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Drug trafficking

Drug trafficking is a major source of revenue for organised crime groups, many of whom are involved in other forms of serious crime such as firearms, modern slavery and immigration crime. Action against drug trafficking therefore has a much wider disruptive impact on organised criminal activity.

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The threat from drug trafficking

The number of people in this country whose deaths were caused by drug misuse increased last year. The last official numbers – for 2016 – attributed 2,593 UK deaths to drug misuse. Newer synthetic opioids – such as fentanyl - have contributed to this rise.

Opium production in Afghanistan and cocaine production in Colombia are at record levels. This increase in production has the added effect of a high level of drug purity at street level as the criminals have less need to use cutting agents, and this brings its own dangers. The chemicals necessary for amphetamine production continue to enter the country in volume, while street prices drop, again indicating rising availability. Evidence suggests crack cocaine use - a particular driver of violence -is rising in England and Wales, while demand for all common drug types remain high.

There is significant, and often deadly, competition between rival organised crime groups at all stages of class A drugs production and supply. There is also corruption at every stage of the drug supply chain, including through the use of corrupt port and airport officials. 

Organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking are typically also involved in a range of criminal activity, and the profits from illegal drugs are used to fund other forms of criminal operations, including buying illegal firearms and financing terrorism.

Crime associated with drug trafficking is very often violent, with direct links to the criminal use of firearms and gang feud knife attacks, and traffickers frequently exploit young and vulnerable people. Cannabis gangs in particular are notorious for the trafficking and exploitation of Vietnamese children and other vulnerable people to carry out live-in work in dangerous cannabis factories.

County Lines

Urban street gangs play a key – and rising - role in the distribution of class A drugs, particularly heroin and crack cocaine. By their nature, County Line drug networks tend to operate across police and local authority boundaries, although not exclusively.

County Lines are not defined by the distance between the point of control and the point of distribution, but rather the mechanism by which that method of supply is supported; namely the use of a mobile telephone line and the use of vulnerable adults and children to facilitate the distribution. Importing areas are reporting increased levels of violence and weapons-related crimes as a result of this trend.

Read more: pdf NCA Intelligence Assessment: County Lines, Gangs, and Safeguarding (146 KB)

Routes into the UK

Most forms of illegal drugs originate overseas and are trafficked into the UK via various routes, including:

  • Container shipping
  • Yachts and small boats
  • Light aircraft
  • Vehicle traffic from continental Europe
  • Airline passengers
  • The post and fast parcels

Trafficking methods frequentlyrely on the recruitment of vulnerable people as mules - often at great risk to their lives and welfare. They can also rely on enlisting the help of employees at ports and borders; this corruption weakens the integrity of border security and increases the risk of other forms of trafficking, including firearms and organised immigration crime.

Profits are high at all stages of drug trafficking, but particularly for those who can access the drugs in their source country. Criminals from the Balkans dominate the cocaine market, but British traffickers remain a significant threat.

Read more:   pdf National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2018 (3.48 MB) .

Our response

Enforcement action against drug trafficking has a wider disruptive impact on organised crime. Crime groups involved in drug trafficking are typically involved in a range of criminal activity, so action against drug trafficking can simultaneously impact:

Illegal drugs are a global threat.To combat organised crime groups operating across borders we cannot deal with the UK in isolation – we must work with partners around the world to coordinate action and prevent illegal drugs from reaching the UK in the first place.

International action

Our international network is a key asset in enabling us to tackle the threat before drugs reach the UK.

We work closely with authorities in source countries such as Colombia, Pakistan and Afghanistan to tackle production upstream. We provide intelligence, training, tactical guidance, equipment and other forms of support to help build capability and sharpen developing nations' response to the threat.

We also work with partners in transit countries from the Caribbean to West Africa, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands to intercept shipments and prevent them from reaching UK shores. We tackle the entire drug smuggling supply chain from source to street sale, so we are able to disrupt and dismantle networks at every stage of the drug trafficking process.

Working with partners such as Border Force, the Royal Navy, European and American authorities we have conducted several maritime operations to seize large quantities of drugs at sea.

Several of the fugitives on our Most Wanted list have been convicted or are suspected of being involved in drug trafficking. Where fugitives flee abroad we work with international law enforcement partners to locate, arrest and return them to the UK to face justice.

Within the UK

We lead our own investigations, provide intelligence to partners in the UK and around the world and coordinate multi-agency action. 

The NCA is taking a national leadership role in assessing the county lines threat, and prioritising the operational law enforcement response. 

Border Force is a key partner in securing our borders and preventing drugs from being successfully trafficked into the country. Police and regional organised crime units (ROCUs) are also vital partners in the fight against drug trafficking.

Because drug trafficking funds and enables other forms of crime our investigations often provide crucial intelligence into associated criminal operations. It can also help us to identify and safeguard victims of crimes such as modern slavery and child sexual exploitation and abuse. 

Reducing demand is another critical factor in reducing the supply of illegal drugs. Many people see recreational drug use as a victimless crime. The reality is that the production of illegal drugs for western markets has a devastating impact in source countries in terms of violence, exploitation of vulnerable and indigenous people and environmental destruction.

What you can do to help

You can help secure our borders against the trafficking of drugs and other criminal commodities.

If you see anything suspicious at the coast, on the waterways, at rural airfields or anywhere else please report it to your local police on 101 or to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. Always call 999 in an emergency.

Latest news on this threat

Custody image

A man has been jailed for seven years after a self-loading pistol and ammunition were seized from him on the M1 in Hertfordshire.

Rashid walking through airport

A man who tried to smuggle heroin worth almost £1 million into the UK through Birmingham Airport has been jailed for nine years.

Dock workers charged as part of NCA drug investigation

A Portsmouth dock worker has been arrested and charged with attempted drug importation offences.