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Drug production and trafficking to the UK
Synthetic drug supply to the UK
Dame Carol Black's Review of Drugs analyses drug production and trafficking to the UK.

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Drug production and trafficking

The review of drugs

This is the second in a series of posts based on perhaps the most important drug-related report of the current century, Dame Carol Black’s Review of Drugs . Today’s post looks at the section from that report dedicated to drug production and trafficking to the UK.

Dame Carol starts by providing a detailed overview of the drugs production process for different substances, summarised in the infographic below.


The Review of Drugs continues by comparing the different means of production for heroin and cocaine, cannabis and synthetic drugs. It then goes on to provide a detailed analysis of the economics of heroin and cocaine production which reveals that the level of markup from source production to final product far outweighs that of any legal drugs with a 29,000% markup for heroin and a 5000% markup for cocaine. 

The report notes that Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) who are able to set up supply chains direct from the source country to the end market – such as Albanians with powder cocaine – are able to significantly cut costs and provide a consistent supply to retailers.

The report goes on to illustrate the main heroin and cocaine trafficking routes with associated costs for different transport methods. It costs approximately £600 per kilo for a fishing boat to traffic cocaine while the cost for sending heroin via post are much higher – £3000 per kilo.

The report then examines the recent trends in cocaine and heroin production with a massive boom in cocaine production in Colombia since 2013 with a parallel surge in the purity of street level cocaine in this country.

The Review of Drugs provides a helpful summary of the main findings with regard to drug production and trafficking to the UK:

  • Most of the heroin imported into the UK is thought to originate from Afghanistan, often trafficked via the Balkans. The most common methods of importation are either by air or sea.
  • Nearly all the cocaine imported into the UK is thought to originate from Colombia, and is often trafficked into Europe by sea before being transported onwards into the UK via freight or tourist vehicles.
  • There appears to be a growing trend of more cannabis being domestically produced in the UK. Cannabis which is cultivated by Organised Crime Groups is often linked to exploitation and modern slavery offences.
  • Traditional synthetics such as ecstasy and amphetamines tend to be produced in Belgium or the Netherlands, whereas newer psychoactive substances and synthetic opioids are often produced in China and India.
  • The new synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are many times more potent than heroin and can be sent in smaller parcels in the post, making them difficult to detect. The increased potency poses a significant mortality and morbidity risk to users, many who will end up taking it by mistake.
  • There has been a substantial boom in cocaine production since 2013, resulting in a surge in purity levels in England and Wales. The increased supply of cocaine is likely to have contributed to greater use of both cocaine powder and crack in recent years.
  • Similar increases in heroin production have been seen in recent years, which appears to have led to an increase in purity, but does not appear to have affected consumption. Increased purity could be playing a part in increased heroin overdoses.
  • A record quantity of cocaine was seized by Border Force in 2018 19, which is likely to reflect the greater supply and availability of cocaine. It is likely that Border Force is only capturing a relatively small proportion of the total volume of drugs entering the UK.

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