The amount of cocaine seized annually by law enforcement authorities in the UK has reached its highest level since records began in 1973, according to Home Office statistics.
Almost 10,000kg of cocaine was confiscated (pdf) in 2018-19, up from 3,338kg the previous year, and the vast majority of seizures were made by Border Force officers as rising demand for the class A drug in the UK appeared to fuel increased imports.
The quantity of crack cocaine seized in 2018-19 also reached its highest level since 2004, with 63kg of the highly addictive substance confiscated by authorities – a 73% annual rise.
Despite efforts to eradicate coca crops, global cocaine production remains at its highest levels since records began and the UK is one of the main eventual destinations for exports of the drug from Latin America.
The security minister, Ben Wallace, warned earlier this year that the UK “is fast becoming the biggest consumer of cocaine in Europe” and deaths from misuse have doubled since 2015. It is believed that the illicit cocaine market across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is worth £5bn.
Scientists at King’s College London estimated this year that 23kg of the class A drug is consumed every day in London, more than Europe’s next three biggest cocaine-consuming cities combined. Their waste-water analysis also found cocaine purity is at record levels.
Police sources said there was a widespread acceptance of a greater quantity of drugs in the UK than ever before, and that authorities were placing increased focus on higher level organised crime.
Last year, a yacht registered in Holland was intercepted off the coast of Cornwall carrying 2,100kg of cocaine and in October two lorry drivers were jailed for 20 years for attempting to smuggle 30kg into the UK.
Cocaine is also ferried into the country by travellers on trains and in planes, as well as in shipping containers and through the postal system. Last month, a “narco-submarine” containing about 3,000kg of cocaine was seized by Spanish police and the National Crime Agency believes that a large portion of it would have eventually ended up on British streets.
Simon Kempton, the Police Federation lead on drugs seizures, said the figures reflected the “huge amount” of drugs available on the black market, since neither prices nor purity appeared to have been affected by the busts.
“This is a concern which underlines how there is a proliferation of illicit drugs on the streets of the UK, all of which goes to fund serious organised crime,” he said.
The Italian ’Ndrangheta crime syndicate is known to control much of the cocaine flow across Europe and has established a partnership with the Albanian mafia, which supplies much of the market across the UK. However, a number of groups are involved in trafficking cocaine.
“Whilst it is clear from the data that the seizures in the UK are a result of border force operations and large scale confiscations, the reality is the cocaine market will continue largely unabated,” said Niamh Eastwood from Release.
“Even the Home Office has acknowledged the resilience of the drug market, its own research states that despite spending £1.6bn on drug law enforcement there is little impact on the availability of drugs. This is why we need to explore alternative approaches to prohibition.”
The quantity of ecstasy seized more than tripled, according to the Home Office statistics, rising from 0.7m doses to 2.2m in 2018-19. It represented the highest quantity seized since 2006-07.
Figures also reveal that the number of illegal diazepam tablets seized entering the UK through the postal system more than doubled, from 545,000 in 2017 to 1.3m in 2018, the BBC reported.
The total number of drug seizures rose by 12% between 2018-19 and 2017-18, the first annual increase since 2011-12. However, the quantity of herbal cannabis seized in 2018-19 fell by 42% on the previous year – from 28,669kg to 16,692kg.
The Home Office has commissioned an independent evidence-based review of drug policy which includes a focus on the illicit market. The review will not consider changes to the existing legislative framework.