Have we taken our eye off the ball on drugs?

On the face of it, there is nothing within this week’s crime statistics that would suggest we should be worrying more about drugs-related offences. While the surge in serious violence (a subject we have written about previously) continues apace, the recorded crime statistics appear to show that drugs-related offences are heading in a steady downward trajectory.

 

But what if these two trends are actually related? What if, rather than telling us that drugs offences are declining, they are signalling that the police have de-prioritised drugs-related offences? And what if that deprioritization has contributed to the rise in serious violence by, for example, reducing the certainty of punishment for drug dealing gang members?

 

There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that such a hypothesis may not be totally far-fetched. Firstly, we know there has been a rise in crack cocaine use since 2014, driven by increases in both supply and demand. (Columbia, the main source country for cocaine in the UK, has seen coca cultivation surge since 2013, according to a UN report. In line with this, crack-cocaine purity in England has been rising in recent years.) Now, basic laws of economics dictate that if demand for Class A drugs is growing, while the number of drug trafficking offences has been falling, there are likely to be more drug dealers on the streets.

 

Would an increase in drug dealing necessarily lead to more serious violence? We certainly can’t rule it out. According to data compiled by the Home Office, between 2014-15 and 2016-17 homicides involving known illicit drug dealers and/ or users, as either victims, suspects, or both, increased from 206 to 247.

 

Secondly, there have been important shifts within the drugs market in recent years that may have made detecting drugs criminality more challenging. For example, there is some evidence of a shift in the operating model and culture of gangs, away from a focus on territory towards one focused on profits, explored in a recent (and fascinating) study of gangs in Waltham Forest in east London, by Southbank University. This documents the emergence of a more organised and ruthless operating model focused on the drugs market and driven by a desire to maximise profits. A model which rejects visible signs of gang membership as ‘bad for business’ because it attracts police attention.

 

Thirdly, drug markets may also help to explain the curious geography of the current increases in serious violence. One of the most striking findings about the rise in violence since 2014 – reinforced by this week’s crime statistics – is that it has not been limited to the big cities – as the chart below demonstrates.

These patterns may at least be partly due to the phenomenon of ‘county lines’ in which drug-selling gangs from the major urban areas, like London and Liverpool – possibly driven by excess supply – have sought to exploit children by using them to travel outside of urban areas and take over local drugs markets in other towns and areas.

 

Of course, none of this amounts to proof of a causal link. We cannot know for sure whether what we are witnessing is a result of the police (under pressure to respond to the rise of more complex crimes, such as sexual offences) having taken a less proactive approach to tackling drug criminality, or whether it is because gangs are now operating more under the radar than a decade ago, making drug criminality harder to detect. Moreover, it would be wrong to point the finger at the police, who are struggling with an increase in demand at a time when resources have shrunk. If we have taken our eye off the ball on drugs, it is as much the fault of Ministers in the Home Office and PCCs, as it is hard pressed Chief Constables. Until the publication of last year’s Drugs Strategy (itself a relatively empty document), the Home Office had said little about drugs for seven years. Just three PCCs (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Durham) include drugs as a priority in their police and crime plans. This is as much a political problem as it is an operational one.

 

Whatever the causes, and wherever the blame lies, this feels like an issue that deserves further investigation. Keep your eyes out for further work from Crest in this area in the coming months.

 

If you have evidence or insight you would like to share with us for this project, please get in touch.

 

Harvey Redgrave

Harvey Redgrave

Managing director

One of the UK’s leading experts on crime and justice policy, Harvey brings a wealth of experience from a decade spent working in government, academia and parliament. Prior to joining Crest, Harvey spent four years advising on home affairs policy for the Labour Party and was a deputy director at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, where he led several major strategic reviews on behalf of a series of UK prime ministers affecting policy reform.