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Illicit drugs and the crime rate in England


Illicit drugs; a major influence towards the influx of the crime rate in England, these substances fall under two categories [1], the first covering the main illegal drugs; taken merely for the recreational feeling of ‘getting high’- these drugs include: Cocaine, Heroin, MDMA and LSD. The second category comprises the legal drugs consumed once prescribed by a doctor; however, these drugs are exploited by the individual they were prescribed to and even users who are not under the doctor’s care.

The drugs in this category include: prescription painkillers and sedatives. Many of the first category are consumed in England due to drug trafficking from overseas countries i.e. Columbia and Afghanistan.

“Drug trafficking is a global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws” [3].

Cocaine is the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug across Europe, with an approximation of 3.6 million adults using the substance [4], the drug itself is a natural product isolated from the leaves of Erythroxylum coca Lamarck and Erythroxylum novogranatense (coca leaves).

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Mainly this drug is cultivated in South American countries of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru and is trafficked to Europe via both sea and air; predominantly being shipped from Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina to then arrive in Europe to be distributed to the UK. As well as Cocaine, Heroin is a frequent substance used by adults in the UK; the opioid makes the user feel a sensation of euphoria, causing the addictive nature. This substance is derived from the morphine alkaloid contained in the natural source: Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) [6].

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Afghanistan is the capital of Heroin production and is exported into Europe via 4 main routes: The Balkan Route, Southern Route, Northern Route and the Caucasus Route. [5]. Both illicit substances are Class A drugs and the possession of these illegal highs can give the user a maximum of 7 years in prison [7].


History of the crime rate in England

Crime rate has fluctuated over the past decade, however coming to the end of 2018; a rise in crime has once again been seen [8]. The offences considered are shown in the table below (Table 1). According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, a 4% decrease has been shown in the number of police recorded offences involving firearms; this may be due to stricter government laws i.e. Firearms Amendment Act 2018 [9]. This act came into the police force to use on the 16th October 2018 [10], Section 1(a)(i) and (a)(v) states to ‘create offences for possessing, carrying and using firearms in public places and private property’ and that it is an ‘offence for possession of parts and equipment for the purpose of manufacturing firearms’.

By amending these rules of the Firearms Act later in 1997 and thus further on in 2011, the government has made it very difficult for person(s) to traffic firearms into England for use to gangs and associated fugitives. In 2011, The Violent Crime Reduction Act [11] was amended to specify how imitation firearms must be regulated; Section 4(a) states ‘an imitation firearm must incorporate an inclusion’ this was decided to stop dummy firearms being modified to then be sold onto the highest bidder for the use of violence.

Table 1- Offences and the percentage increase/decrease

Percentage increase/decrease (%)
Vehicleoffence 0,03
Robbery 0,17
Burglary -1%
Shoplifting -1%
Homicide 0,14
Offences involving firearms -4%
Offences involving knives/sharp instruments 0,08
Assault using a sharp instrument 0,15

As firearms offences decrease, the use of knives or sharp instruments has increased; an 8% increase in offences involving knives and a 15% increase in the number of admissions to hospital in England for assaults involving a sharp instrument [8]. Most police forces have seen a rise in knife crime since 2012, alongside this the jobs of PCSO jobs have been cut across the country.

Who uses drugs? Why is there an increase in the consumption of drug

According to the National Statistics for 2012/13, in England and Wales; adults as young as 16 are contributing to the use of an illicit drug. A key stat represented from this data is that, 2.6% of adults aged 16-59 had taken a Class A drug in the last year (2012) [12]. This 2.6% may seem like a small percentage of the overall population for England and Wales; however, it is equivalent to almost 850,000 people. Cocaine and ecstasy were the most used Class A drugs with 1.9% of people taking cocaine and 1.3% taking ecstasy. In figure 1, the graph represents the percentage use of any drugs and Class A drugs across the age ranges of 16-24 and 16-59. This data was taken from 1996 through to 2012/13. As seen from the data in Figure 1, all 4 categories have decreased in the percentage of drug use over the 17-year span.

A study with National Statistics was also conducted into the amount of frequent drug users; (frequent meaning, once a month). The information displayed in Figure 2 below shows the percentage of drug users aged 16-59 who admitted to taking Class A, B or C drugs in their lifetime; compared to just in 2012/13. From the graph we can say that the most common drugs taken by frequent drug users in 2012/13 are: Any type of cocaine and cannabis. However, the most common drugs taken by frequent drug users aged 16-59 in their lifetime were: Any amphetamine and LSD.

A survey conducted through the Guardian in 2014 [17], recognised that the Class C drug – marijuana, is shown to be the most popular drug used first by the population. With 82% of England stating marijuana was their first illegal drug consumption. Marijuana is often referred to as the gateway drug and a potential factor in the increase of drug consumption, there is not clear evidence that this is true; however, it is believed that early exposure in adolescents to such cannabinoids can cause particularly harmful effects such as addiction and use of harder drugs [18].

Cocaine is the largest consumed illicit drug across Europe; this drug provides the user with a feeling of stimulation and excitement [13], as well as aggressiveness and paranoia. The chemical structure of cocaine can be seen in Figure 3.

Cocaine’s mechanism works by, creating an influx of the neurochemical dopamine [15]. Dopamine is an important substance for the body as it acts as a messenger between the cells in our brain; this chemical is able to determine whether we become addicted to certain substances [16]. Once cocaine has created a build up of dopamine, the areas of the brain, rich in dopamine- responsive cells are heightened. One particular area in the limbic system responsible for feeling pleasure and emotion in the body; produces the euphoric feelings seen as a symptom in a person using cocaine. This is due to such a high concentration of dopamine, the dopamine-responsive cells think it is natural and that the body is feeling pleasure and euphoria. As the receiving cells produce this addictive response, the user ends up wanting to repeat the activity i.e. taking cocaine, to trigger the response again.

Cocaine is produced by taking the leaves of the coca plant; there are two hundred species of this coca plant, however, only two are suitable to manufacture cocaine [19]. These two species contain the highest levels of cocaine, climates and soil conditions also play a major factor in the levels of cocaine found. Once the leaves have been collected they must be left to dry; if the leaves get wet they will start to rot, resulting in a loss of production and money [20]. Overall there are 3 different phases to this method: 1) Extraction phase, 2) Base phase and 3) Hydrochloride phase. In phase 1, the coca leaves are added to a mixture of bleach, kerosene and sulphuric acid; this is to allow the leaves to soften, to make the extraction of the paste easier [21]. Phase 2 occurs when potassium permanganate is added, then followed by dilute ammonia or another alkaloid; this is to cause the cocaine base to separate and is then filtered to remove impurities [22]. In the final stage, the base is left to dry to form a white powder; the base is then dissolved in hydrochloric acid, thus forming cocaine hydrochloride, the white fluffy powder known as cocaine [23]. Cocaine hydrochloride can also be converted into what is known as ‘crack’; this version of the drug is crystallised, does not contain hydrochloride and is typically brown in colour. Crack cocaine is made by adding baking powder and water to the white powder; this substance is then boiled and cooled to produce the rock 3463290224790000right2139950 Figure 6- Major Cocaine trafficking routes to Europe

Cocaine can enter the body via 4 different ways dependent on the type of cocaine present. With cocaine hydrochloride, the substance is most commonly snorted; however, it can be ingested and also injected if dissolved in water. Crack cocaine can only be smoked, as the drug is smoked the fumes from the substance are inhaled, causing the euphoric feeling. Figure 5 shows the differences between how Cocaine is taken below.

As stated previously, Cocaine is mainly trafficked from the jungles of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela; located in South America. In recent years, Brazil has also been seen as a major departure point; showing that Bolivia and Peru, located next to Brazil are producing more cocaine for the European market [27]. The routes that Cocaine travels use air, land and sea; recently the route that travels across the Sahara in Africa has been abandoned due to violence located in Libya and Mali [28]. This has caused Liberia and Sierra Leone to lose out on the drug trade; as these countries fall, other countries such as Nigeria and Ghana have picked up the trade; the cocaine is mainly delivered from Brazil. In Figure 6 below, the main cocaine trafficking routes can be seen.

In 2008, a study by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime); showed the average retail price for a gram of cocaine in US dollars. This study is fairly old; however, it still provides basic information of how expensive cocaine is bought for and which continents consume the most. The data from this study is show in Table 2 [29].

In 2008, the average retail price for 1 gram of Cocaine in the EU was US$101, when converted to British Pounds with todays conversion rate (US$ 1.00 = ?0.77 [30]). The average price for one gram of cocaine would have been ?77.40.


Heroin has been labelled as the most addictive drug in the world when compared to other hard drugs such as: Cocaine, Nicotine, Barbiturates and Alcohol [31]. This substance allows the user to feel a sense of euphoria and provides momentary relief from pain and stress [32]. The structure is very similar to that of morphine; heroin’s structure can be seen in figure 6 below.

When heroin has entered the body, an enzyme found in the human serum known as acylcholine acylhdyrolase [34] performs hydrolysis on the heroin molecule. This enzyme converts the drug into morphine. Once converted, the morphine binds to opiate receptors found in certain areas of the brain such as: the cerebral cortex. Figure 7 below shows the areas of the brain with opioid receptors. A theory behind this mechanism is that; as the opiate receptors are activated, there is a decrease in the release of GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). This GABA molecule naturally inhibits the release of dopamine. However, if the abundance of GABA decreases, the volume of dopamine will thus increase [35]. Causing the euphoric feeling described by heroin users.

Heroin is cultivated by growing the opium poppy in fields; these poppies are left to ripen. Once ripe, the poppy head is scored with 3-4 lines on each of the four faces, the head is then left to weep [36]. The sap that comes out of the poppy is raw opium and is generally made into morphine, once collected the sap is left to dry [37]. After the opium has dried, the substance is taken to small scale clandestine laboratories hidden in Afghanistan, it is added to a vat of boiling water and calcium hydroxide (to allow precipitation to occur). Whilst the vat is boiling, clear liquid starts to form on the surface, this clear liquid is morphine [38]. A binding solution- normally ammonium chloride is added to the morphine and then replaced back into the vat. After filtration, the residue is left to dry resulting in the morphine base- a coffee coloured rock like substance. In later stages the morphine base is converted to morphine hydrochloride by the addition of hydrochloric acid and activated charcoal ready to harvest heroin [39]. The next two stages are very complex, involving the acetylation of morphine. Acetic anhydride and water are added to a vat of the morphine hydrochloride, it is then heated to 85 degrees Celsius. Once the morphine has dissolved, activated charcoal is added to remove impurities and the water layer is poured off; sodium carbonate is added to produce a precipitation with the end result containing the heroin base, this base is then dried [40]. The final step takes place by adding ethyl ether and hydrochloric acid to the base, thus allowing the heroin to precipitate and then dry [41].

Heroin can have three appearances, the first is a white powder and the purity is very high; the second is a brown powder, similar to the white but less pure. Thirdly, a black rock/tar substance, this colour is due to impurities being left behind in the filtering process [42]. The white and brown powder can be snorted or smoked- commonly known as ‘chasing the dragon’; however, the black substance is mainly heated to be injected straight into the veins. Figure 8 shows the differences between the two versions of heroin.

Previously stated earlier that heroin is trafficked into Europe using four main routes; the traditional Balkan route, this route mainly runs from the supplier country (Afghanistan) through to Iran and then to Turkey [44]. This route is the shortest and most efficient, once the heroin has reached Turkey; the drugs are split via three branches to distribute to other countries mostly by sea/land.

The second route is the Southern route; this runs across the Indian Ocean; the heroin is trafficked by sea. The route described runs from Afghanistan, along the Indian Ocean to the eastern coast of Africa and also to the centre where the Maldives and Sri Lanka are located [45].

The third route is the Northern route; the heroin trafficked is moved via land. Heroin is moved from the northern border of Afghanistan through to Central Asia, Russia and Ukraine [44].

The final route is the Southern Caucasus route, this is a relatively new route and it is suggested that large amounts of opiates including heroin are shipped on ferries from Iran to Europe; via the Black Sea and through Ukraine and Moldova [44]. Figure 9 shows the four routes on a map.

Using statistical analysis from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction produced in 2018. For both white heroin and undistinguished heroin, there has been no data for the price of 1 gram since the study started in 1995 for white heroin in the UK and since 2010 for undistinguished heroin [47]. Meanwhile the data for brown heroin states that the minimum price paid for 1 gram in the UK has fluctuated since its arrival in 2011. In 2011 it was stated as ˆ34.39, since then it has increased to ˆ48.80 with data from 2016. Using the current conversion rates for Euros into British Pounds (ˆ1 = ?0.86) [48], in 2016 in the UK, typically one gram of brown heroin was ?42.21. In relation to other countries, in 2016 the UK was in the top 4 countries for the highest price for 1 gram of brown heroin. Table 3 below shows the mimium prices for 1 gram of brown heroin in other European countries.

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Illicit drugs and the crime rate in England. (2019, Nov 23). Retrieved from

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