Drug-War Milestone: UK drug searches and drug offences both reach record levels
October - 2008
Dr. Russell Newcombe, Senior Researcher
Lifeline Project, 39-41 Thomas Street, Manchester M4 1NA
Drug-related searches and offences in the UK have reached unprecedented levels, as highlighted in new statistics that emerged at the start of October 2008. However, this information has received little or no attention from the mass media.
This article aims to give a brief overview of the context and implications of these record figures. Detailed evidence and arguments can be found in the linked tables, charts and notes. It should also be stated at the outset that the way in which official statistics about drugs and crime are recorded, calculated and reported has changed many times over the past century, and particularly in the last decade 1. Consequently, the identification and interpretation of trends in such annual statistics is always open to criticism, though the key trends discussed below are clear and consistent enough to minimise any such concerns.
Drug-related searches and offences in the UK are now at a level never seen before. First, drug-related stops and searches by the police in England & Wales climbed to a record level of 405,000 in 2006/07, up from just 32,500 in 1986 (Table 1, Chart 1). This constitutes a twelve-fold increase in 20 years, and amounts to over 1,100 drug-related stops and searches per day. It should be noted that this figure is based on searches of people’s clothes, bags and vehicles in public places only, and generally excludes other types of searches and settings 2. If relevant figures for the rest of the UK are added, we now have an annual national toll of around half a million drug-related stops and searches. Indeed, in the 3-year period from 2004/05 to 2006/07, there were over one million stops and searches for drugs (1,021,300) in England & Wales.
Second, recent statistics also show that just 8% of recent stops and searches for drugs have resulted in arrests, compared with 20% in 1986 (Table 1; Chart 1). In short, more than nine in ten drug-related stops and searches in recent years appear to be unjustified. Furthermore, research has also revealed that highly disproportionate rates of drug-related stops and searches and consequent arrests are carried out on blacks and Asians compared with whites, particularly among young males 3.
Third, the number of UK drug offences reached a record high of 272,000 in 2007/08 (Table 2). This compares with fewer than 300 drug offences per annum between 1921 (when drugs were first prohibited) and 1960 (when the modern ‘War on Drugs’ was launched). Drug legislation was then extended to prohibit a growing range of drugs, and the annual number of UK drug offences soared for this and other reasons – exceeding 10,000 in 1970, 100,000 in 1997, and a quarter-million in 2007/08 (Chart 2).
However, the British Crime Survey indicates that the prevalence of past-year drug use in England and Wales has dropped significantly between 2001/02 and 2007/08, particularly among young adults (from 12% to 9% overall, and from 30% to 21% for 16-24s). By contrast, the number of drug offences has nearly trebled over the same period. Indeed, there have been over one million drug offences (1,109,867) in the UK over the last five years. Moreover, the vast majority of recent drug offences (80-90%) have involved simple possession of drugs, while about two-thirds involved cannabis possession – most of which are now dealt with by various types of police disposal, notably cannabis warnings and cautions (i.e. ‘catch, confiscate, castigate, and carry on’) (Table 3).
Finally, over the past 15 years the availability and purity of most popular drugs have either risen or remained stable, while their prices have fallen significantly 4. As economists will tell you, this three-dimensional profile is the sign of a thriving, healthy market – and confirms that the government’s intensification of the ‘war on drugs’ has been ineffective 5.
Although these facts and figures speak for themselves, I will round things off with one conclusion - that the government policies which lead to police priorities and practices like those identified above make a mockery of our criminal justice system, especially when levels of many types of violent crime are higher now than they were a few decades ago 6. Moreover, the resources required to carry out annually around half a million drug-related stops & searches and to process over a quarter of a million drug offences are a dreadful waste of taxpayers’ money, and the whole operation has become a gross infringement of democratic rights. Table 1: Number of drug-related stops & searches and resulting arrests in England & Wales every five years between 1985 and 2005, and latest figures (2006/07)
SearchesResulting arrests198632,5006,200 (20)199097,80016,000 (16)1995231,90030,700 (13)2000/01236,90033,300 (14)2005/06377,90030,400 (8)2006/07406,50033,000 (8)Table 2: Number of drug offences in UK - every 10 years from 1920 to 2000 (including breakdowns for heroin and cannabis), and annual figures from 2003/04 to 2007/08
HeroinCannabisall drugs offences19210 (*)–25119301 (2)1 (2)6519400 (*)3 (6)5419501 (*)86 (51) 16919607 (3)235 (85)2781970281 (2) 7,520 (59) 12,6851980751 (4)14,192 (83)17,15819901,605 (4)40,194 (89)44,922200012,430 (12)76,590 (73)105,1902003/04
272,424* less than 1%
( ) = percentage of drug offences involving cannabis/heroin
Figures for individual drugs are not available from 2003/04.
Table 3: Annual number of drug offences in England & Wales, 2004-05 to 2007-08, overall and by three types of offence (and number of cannabis warnings)
Cannabis Possession*Cannabis Warnings #Possession of other drugsDrug TraffickingTotal drug offences2004-0588,263 (61)40,138 32,603 (22)24,190 (17)145,8372005-06119.917 (67)63,635 32,685 (18)25,276 (14)178,4792006-07130,395 (67)81,311 36,608 (19)26,550 (14)194,2332007-08158,086 (69)104,207 41,933 (18)28,130 (12)228,958Cannabis Warnings: previously called Formal/Street Warnings – implemented in 2004 when cannabis became Class C – they involve police confiscation of small amount of cannabis from someone .
* round-bracketed figures are percentage of all drug offences which were cannabis possession offences.
# square-bracketed figures are percentage of cannabis possession cases dealt with by cannabis warnings.
1. The interpretation of trends and patterns in annual figures on drug offences and drug-related stops & searches is affected by several factors, notably:
(1) the switch from calendar years to financial years from around the mid-1990s to the start of the century;
(2) technical changes in the way figures are recorded and calculated (e.g. MODA only, or other drug offences too); and
(3) whether drug offences are based on counts of the number of prosecutions (1921-1954); court convictions (1955-1972); court convictions and police cautions (1973-1982); court convictions, police cautions, and customs compoundings (1983-1998); or the latter plus various other forms of ‘police disposal’ introduced over the last decade (notably reprimands, final warnings, and cannabis warnings).
2. The other types of search/setting excluded by the reported ‘stop & search’ figures are strip-searches at police stations, searches of homes/premises for drugs, and ‘indirect searches‘ by the police – namely, the growing number of legally questionable 'sniffer dog' trawls and body fluid tests (notably skin-swipes) in public places, and electronic body-scans (i.e. X-ray and ultra-sound) carried out at police stations under the 2005 Drugs Act. Similarly, it should also be noted that the figures for arrests discussed in the main text are those which follow on from drug-related stops & searches, and do not include arrests for drug offences made in other contexts.
3. Annual figures from 2002/03 to 2006/07 show that 40% to 45% of all stops & searches in England & Wales were conducted on suspicion of drug possession (Ministry of Justice 2008). Home Office statistics for the population of England & Wales aged 10 years or older in 1997/98 showed that blacks were five times more likely than whites to be both stopped and searched and arrested by the police (regarding any offence) – while “Asians seemed to be more likely than white or black people to be suspected of drugs offences as the main reason for being stopped and searched” (1998, p.13). More recent figures were provided by Rod Morgan in his paper at the Release conference ‘Drugs, Race and Discrimination’ in September 2008. Quoting from Youth Justice Board reports, Morgan reported that (compared with whites) blacks, Asians and/or mixed-race people were disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested, prosecuted, and remanded in custody – though they were less likely to be cautioned, and, if convicted, more likely to receive longer sentences. He concluded that “we are gratuitously criminalising a whole generation of ethnic youths” (Morgan 2008).
4. The purity of drugs in England & Wales has generally climbed or remained broadly stable over the past two decades. For instance, the Home Office provide annual mean quarterly figures for our three most popular and established drug powders, based on forensic analyses of police drug seizures. A comparison of the latest figures (2005) with those for 1990, based on the range of quarterly purities for each year, provides relevant evidence (though they do gloss over annual variations). That is, the mean purity of heroin powder rose from 36%-40% to 45%-48%; the mean purity of amphetamine powder climbed from 6% to 9%-12%; and the mean purity of cocaine powder remained level at around 40%-45% (Mwenda et al. 2007). Similarly, recent figures for cannabis show that (1) the mean THC purity of skunk/sinsemilla climbed reasonably steadily from about 6% in 1995 to 16% in 2008; (2) the mean THC purity of standard herbal cannabis climbed from around 4%-5% in the late 1990s to 9% in 2008; and (3) the mean THC purity of resin remained fairly level, at around 6% in both 1998 and 2008 (ACMD 2008; Hardwick & King 2008).
The prices of drugs have generally fallen or remained stable over the past decade (even without taking inflation into account) – as evidenced by a comparison of initial estimates of street prices in 1997 (Home Office 1998) with those in 2008 (Drugscope/Daly 2008):
Heroin Cocaine Crack Amphetamines Ecstasy Resin Herbal-1 Herbal-2 1997£74£71£20£10£11 £97£95 £1632008£45*£42 £10 £9£2 £51£89 £131 Table notes: prices are per gram, except crack (per rock), ecstasy (per tablet), and cannabis (per ounce)
* Based on Drugscope’s gram price for heroin in 2006 (£46) and 2007 (£43) – 2008 figure is not available
Cannabis: herbal-1 = standard quality, herbal-2 = good quality (i.e. sinsemilla/skunk)
Lastly, indicators of the availability of drugs have also generally increased or remained stable over the past decade (figures and references available on request)
5. The ineffectiveness of the government’s drug strategy is also confirmed by evidence about trends in levels of drug use and drug-related harm. First, it was pointed out earlier that annual British Crime Surveys have demonstrated that the prevalence of past-year drug use has dropped off over the noughties – which seems to contradict my claim that the government’s drug strategy is ineffective. More specifically, there was a steady drop of 6% in the national annual prevalence of past-year use of illicit drugs among young adults (16-24s) between 2000 and 2006/07. However, this six-year downward trend was based on steady drops in just three of the 10 regions of England & Wales – those in the ‘bottom right-hand’ corner on the map (see annual ‘Drug Misuse Declared’ reports, of which the latest is Murphy & Roe 2007). Moreover, just one of these exhibited a notable drop – London, 12.4% – with drops in the other two regions being around 2% only (South-East and Eastern). Indeed, half of the 10 regions exhibited fairly steady upward trends in past-year drug use over this period, with large rises found in three regions – the North-East (7.1%), Wales (4.9%) and the South-West (4.9%) – and smaller rises of 2% or less found in the East and West Midlands. Lastly, prevalence trends in two of the 10 regions remained fairly level or trend-less (North-West, and Yorkshire & Humberside). Relevant figures from comparable population surveys in Scotland and Northern Ireland have not been considered here partly for technical reasons, but also because the present analysis is already far too complex for the brief paper I set out to write! There is also clear and consistent evidence that overall downward trends in general drug use are largely restricted to specific types of drug (notably cannabis) and to particular demographic and social groups (for instance, the middle-classes). Second, in addition to trends in the prevalence of drug use, the other key indicator of the effectiveness of our national drug strategy involves trends in the level of drug-related harm. Though the government’s Drug Harm Index (DHI) indicates falling levels of harm, I have argued elsewhere (including this website) that the DHI is conceptually invalid and empirically unreliable. Furthermore, I will be demonstrating in a forthcoming paper that trends in what are arguably the most important kinds of drug-related harm (e.g. deaths, diseases, damage) are not downward but stable or upward.
6. Assessments of time-trends can be ‘selective’ with respect to the time-periods chosen (particularly starting years). The drug trends examined in this article avoid selective bias by using the figures between the first and last years available for each set of statistics (1986-2006/07 for drug searches, 1921-2007/08 for drug offences). Crime statistics are complex and go back several decades, and are based on two main indicators: self-reported incidents in the British Crime Survey (BCS) and crimes recorded by the police. Focusing on the more relevant indicator of self-reported crime, the latest report on crime statistics in England & Wales generally bases its comparisons and trends on the periods between the latest year (2007/08) and 1981, 1991, 1995, 1997 or 2002/03 for BCS incidents (that is, periods of 27, 17, 13, 11 or five years). Although drug searches and offences exhibit fairly steady (upward) trends, these are not so common for violent or other offences, so the following comparisons gloss over any intermediate rises or falls between the starting year and latest year. Out of 11 indicators of violent incidents (overall, four sub-types, and six orthogonal categories), only one kind of violent incident exhibited a rise in numbers across any of the three shorter periods (namely: robbery increased between 2002/03 and 2007/08). However, three kinds of violent incident exhibited a rise in numbers between 1991 and 2007/08 (robbery, mugging and violence with no injury), and six kinds exhibited a rise between 1981 and 2007/08 (the previous three, plus assault with no injury, domestic violence, and violence overall).
References & Sources
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2008). Cannabis: classification and public health. London: Home Office.
Bean P (1974). The Social Control of Drugs. Basil Blackwell.
British Government – Annual Reports to the League of Nations (pre-1945) and United Nations (post-1945).
Daly M (2008). Peaking vallies. Druglink, 23(5), 6-9 [UK drug prices 2008]
Eaton G. et al. (2007). United Kingdom Drug Situation – 2007 national report (2006 data) to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point. London: Department of Health [and previous annual reports]
Hardwick D. & King L. (2008). Home Office cannabis potency study 2008. London: Home Office Scientific Development Branch.
Home Office (1998). Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office Research, Development & Statistics Directorate
Home Office (1998). Drug seizure and offender statistics, UK, 2002. London: Home Office [and previous annual reports]
Kershaw C, Nicholas S & Walker A (2008). Crime in England & Wales 2007/08 – findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime. London: Home Office [and previous annual reports]
Ministry of Justice (2008). Arrests for recorded crime (notifiable offences) and the operation of certain police powers under PACE, England & Wales 2006/07. London: Ministry of Justice [and previous annual reports]
Morgan R. (2008). Youth, drugs and discrimination. Paper presented at the Release Conference ‘Drugs, Race and Discrimination’, London, 18 September 2008.
Murphy R & Roe S (2007). Drug Misuse Declared: findings from the 2006/07 British Crime Survey, England & Wales. London: Home Office [and previous annual reports]
Mwenda L (2005). Drug offenders in England & Wales 2004. London: Home Office [and previous annual reports]
Police Service Northern Ireland (2008). PSNI Annual Statistical Report – Recorded Crimes and Clearances, April 2007 – March 2008. Belfast: PSNI Central Statistics Branch.
Reed R (2007). Seizures of drugs in England & Wales 2005. London: Home Office [and previous annual reports]
Scotland Government Information Services (2007). Drug Misuse Statistics Scotland 2007. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.
Acknowledgements: Paul Keeling and Mike Linnell