AN ECSTASY PILL FOR UKP 1
How Birmingham Became The UK's Cut-Price Drugs Capital
A major new survey of the illegal drugs market in 14 cities has shown that
dealers are charging as little as ?1 for an ecstasy pill and that heroin and
cocaine are being sold at half the price of six years ago. Sophie Goodchild
and Jonathan Thompson report from the city that has become a war zone for
The cost of illegal drugs is at an all-time low with the price of an ecstasy
tablet dropping to as little as UKP 1, according to new research. The
findings, based on 14 cities across the kingdom, bestow upon Birmingham the
unenviable accolade of the UK capital for cheap drugs.
The survey of street prices for illegal drugs, carried out by the drugs
information charity Drugscope, reveals that some dealers are offering heroin
and cocaine at half the price they charged six years ago. The average price
for a gram of heroin is now around UKP 49, compared with UKP 74 six years
ago, and cocaine is being sold for UKP 45, compared with UKP 71 in 1997.
Ecstasy now costs between UKP 1 and UKP 5 for a tablet, compared with UKP 25
less than two decades ago.
The price drop reflects the large supply of drugs flooding the market and
will increase criticism of the Government that it is too soft on drugs. Last
month, cannabis was downgraded from a class B to a class C drug, making
arrest for possession only a last resort.
Price wars between rival drug gangs puts Birmingham top of the league, with
the lowest prices for eight illegal recreational drugs out of the cities
analysed in the survey. In Birmingham, heroin can be bought for UKP 25 a
gram, compared with up to UKP 90 in Portsmouth and UKP 40 in London, and
cocaine for as little as UKP 30 a gram. In Belfast ecstasy costs around UKP
10 a tablet.
Drug trafficking is now thought to be the third biggest global commodity in
cash terms after oil and the arms trade. Police and customs officers have
been keen to publicise an increase in the amount of class A drugs seized.
However, the plummeting street prices of drugs indicate that these hauls
have had little impact on the increasing production and supply of illegal
The UK is expected to come under fire this week, from the United Nations
over its "permissive attitude" towards recreational drugs and drug abuse.
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which decides the UN's
strategy on drugs, will publish its annual report, which is understood to
criticise Britain for not taking a harder line against drugs.
However, drug experts say that hardline policies do not work. Martin Barnes,
the chief executive of Drugscope, said it was "imperative" that the
Government focused on reducing demand, as well as supply, by introducing
more effective drug education in schools, as well as drug treatment and
rehabilitation programmes for users.
"While it is the role of law enforcement agencies to stop drugs entering and
circulating within the UK, we have to be realistic about the scale of the
drugs market they are dealing with," he said.
"The amount of drugs in circulation is so great it is unlikely that even
large busts will have a direct influence on street prices. Universal market
forces apply, with increased demand leading to increased supply and
eventually a fall in prices."
Mike Trace, a former government drugs adviser, said the UN and law
enforcement agencies needed to accept that drugs seizures and enforcement
policies did not work in isolation.
"The first important thing for the UN and other agencies is to accept that
what they are doing is ineffective," said Mr Trace, who is head of the
Blenheim Project which counsels drug users, and a former head of the UN's
demand reduction unit.
"The evidence is now clear that enforcement-led approaches will not deliver
a drug-free world."
Carl Rice, a leading councillor who sits on the city's main drugs policy
panel, admitted that that the cheapness of drugs is a growing issue in
"The cheapness and accessibility of drugs is a key reason why some people
use them, and it's something we'll have to look at more," he said.
"Tackling the source of the drugs is the key part of the battle - making
them as expensive as possible.
"We need to look at driving out the imports, which dictate the prices. We
need to look at areas where the prices are high - what they are doing that
we are not.
"We don't want to be seen at the drugs capital of the UK. One agency cannot
tackle this problem on its own.
However, West Midlands police suggested prices for drugs fluctuated, and
were liable to variations over time as well as place.
A spokeswoman said yesterday: "The price of drugs varies from one part of
the country to another and depends on supply and demand, what type of drug
is being sold and who is selling it."
'Parts of this city remind me of the Bronx'
"There are some parts of Birmingham that remind me of Harlem and the Bronx
in New York," says Mark, a 25-year-old New Yorker, as he works the nightclub
door. "There's been an increase in drugs in recent months. They're cheaper
and more available now. In particular, more students seem to be taking
Inside another club, twentysomethings wave glowsticks and rhythmically nod
carefully coiffeured mullets to the thumping of trance music. Tattooed men
wonder around with their T-shirts hanging off their belts as scantily-clad
dancers on the podiums whip the crowd into something approaching a frenzy.
"I guess a lot of people do drop pills here," says 21-year-old Tom.
"Ecstasy, ketamine, things like that. I know a few people who have been
busted for having pills on them. A lot of people come here just as an excuse
to do drugs ... getting completely mashed."
One 20-year-old woman,Beatrice, took poppers - amyl nitrate - as she talked.
"We are in a society now which is a lot more open to drugs," says Beatrice,
who has come from Manchester for the night. "There's a lot less trouble in
places like this than there are in clubs where people are really pissed."
Her friend, Talullah, also 20, says there has been a noticeable decline in
prices recently. "Three years ago, a pill used to be a fiver, now you can
get one for UKP 2," she says. "People are taking more as well - some are
doing more than five in a night. I don't know if they're getting weaker, I
just think people are getting more out of it."
Andy Tatam, the manager of Air, a nightclub which hosts Godskitchen on
Friday nights, says: "We are one of the only clubs in the UK to have set up
a drugs policy in line with government regulations. We have paramedics on
site and work closely with police. Everything is bagged and tagged. Six
tablets or less and they are let go with a caution, otherwise we have to
call it in. It's usually pills and powder, but you are going to get that in
any late-night establishment." The rising figures for drug use could be
misleading, he adds. "I guess statistics like this depend on how proactive
police are. In Birmingham, they are really on the ball and work closely with
the late-night industry."
Mr Tatam's optimism wasn't shared by Anne, 25, a teacher at one of the
city's secondary schools who is out with a friend. "Drugs like cocaine have
somehow gained a glamorised status and the authorities are too permissive
about the issue," she says. "In Birmingham, there's a failure to embrace the
gang problem at the centre of this. They don't know what to do about it or
how to deal with it, so they just deny it's there. The sad fact is that drug
use ... has kudos ... For many of them, drugs are their form of relief. I
guess the drugs problem never went away."