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Drug distribution in the UK
Carol Black drug distribution pyramid
Dame Carol Black's Review of Drugs analyses domestic drug distribution in the UK.

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Domestic drug distribution

This is the third 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 distribution within the UK.

Dame Carol starts by providing a detailed overview of domestic drug distribution, helpfully summarised in a number of infographics.

The first of these shows the drug distribution pyramid with the four main levels: importer, national wholesaler, local wholesaler and retailer.

Dame Carol goes on to show that a large majority (70%) of Organised Crime Groups tend to supply multiple drugs. Recreational drugs (ecstasy, cannabis, and powder cocaine) and problematic drugs (heroin and crack) tend to be supplied together because they have similar customer bases.

The report shows that Albanian OCGs dominates the UK cocaine market, with their supply network stretching from source country all the way to UK towns and cities. They act as the main wholesaler to powder cocaine retail operations, including those converting it to crack. However, some British OCGs also operate at the wholesale level.

The picture for heroin distribution is more complex. Pakistani groups import heroin directly by air or post and London-based Turkish familial crime groups are dominant heroin importers and wholesale distributors. However, British OCGs remain dominant in bulk heroin importation and wholesale supply in the North West of England. Albanian OCGs have the ability to supply wholesale heroin, although their links to the heroin trade are not as well-developed as those for cocaine.

Dame Carol then turns her attention to the county lines form of drug distribution. She typifies county lines by five key characteristics:


  1. A group from an urban hub establishes a network with the county location (e.g. a rural or coastal town).
  2. Customers in the county location make drug orders via branded mobile phone line, often controlled from the urban hub.
  3. The group uses and exploits young people to regular travel from the urban hub to the county location to sell drugs and move cash.
  4. The group also exploits vulnerable people (for instance dependent drug users) in the county location to sell drugs or operate from their home (cuckooing).
  5. The group tends to use intimidation, violence and weapons in the county location including lives, corrosive’s and firearms.

She goes on to say the expansion of county lines has probably been driven in part by declining heroin/crack markets in the urban herbs and also by recognition of untapped markets in less established areas. The increase in the number of vulnerable young people (children in care are excluded from school) may also be an important driver.

The map below shows all recorded supply routes for heroin or crack cocaine between police for scary is. The roots are coloured according to the area that they originate from and the thickness of the line indicates the frequency with which that supply route is used.


The report goes on to look at the distribution networks for recreational drugs before helpfully summarising the UK drug distribution picture:

  • Import and wholesale supply of powder cocaine is thought to be largely dominated by Albanian OCGs, acting as the main wholesaler to powder cocaine retail operations, including those converting it to crack
  • Pakistani and Turkish OCGs are thought to be heavily involved in the import and wholesale levels of the heroin market, with British OCGs also dominant in the North West of England.
  • Over two thirds of drugs OCGs supply multiple substances. Drugs with similar customer bases tend to be sold together by OCGs, such as heroin and crack or powder cocaine and cannabis.
  • Drug selling groups from urban hubs have increasingly established networks in smaller markets through the county lines model, using violence and exploiting children and vulnerable young people.
  • At the retail level, heroin and crack are generally supplied by street dealers, such as junior OCG/USG members or user dealers.
  • Recreational drugs such as cannabis and powder cocaine are distributed through a range of different methods, for example from friends, via social media or in the night time economy.
  • The total number of drug seizures by police forces has fallen considerably in recent years, mainly driven by falls in cannabis seizures. This has reversed in 2018/19 with an increase in seizures, likely driven by greater stop and search activity.
  • Overall, the evidence base on the impact of enforcement activity is poor. The available evidence is complex, but suggests that enforcement ‘crackdowns’ have little sustained impact on the overall drug supply.
  • Enforcement can often have the unintended consequence of increasing violence, for example by creating a gap in the market for dealers to compete over, or increasing distrust in the drugs market. The evidence suggests that enforcement can have a dealers to compete over, or increasing distrust in the drugs market. The evidence suggests that enforcement can have a beneficial role in diverting drug users into treatment, which can increase rates of recovery and reduce re offending.

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