Drug use

According to the Office for National Statistics, in the year ending March 2023, an estimated 9.5% of people aged 16 to 59 years in England and Wales reported using a drug in the last 12 months. 7.6% reported using cannabis and 3.3% reported using a Class A drug. Overall, 2.3% (approximately 777,000) of people were frequent drug users, meaning they had taken a drug more than once a month in the last year.

It is an offence to import, produce, supply or possess a “controlled drug” in the UK. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) regulates the production, supply and possession of controlled drugs.

Controlled drugs are categorised into three classes (Class A, B and C) dependent on how harmful they are. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommends how drugs should be classified under the MDA and provides advice to UK governments on drug related issues. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 regulates the production and supply of psychoactive substances not otherwise controlled under the MDA.

It has been estimated that the value of the illicit drugs market in the UK is £9.4 billion. Due to the complex supply chains involved in the illicit drugs market, enforcement of drug laws requires the involvement of Border Force, the National Crime Agency (NCA) and police:

  • Border Force is the lead agency preventing the importation of drugs at UK borders.
  • NCA is the leading agency in the UK for tackling organised crime, trafficking and economic crime across regional and national borders.
  • Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCU) are partnerships across England and Wales between police forces to manage organised crime taking place across police force borders. Scotland and Northern Ireland also have Organised Crime Units.
  • Police forces lead enforcement of drug supply and possession offences at the local level.

Approaches to drugs across the UK

In December 2021, the Government published its 10-year drug strategy, which aims to reduce the supply and demand for drugs and ensure the availability of high-quality treatment and recovery. The strategy was informed by an independent review of drugs, conducted by Dame Carol Black (Black Review) in two parts, looking at the drugs market (2020) and prevention and treatment (2021).

The Government’s drug strategy largely applies to England. Aspects of drugs policy are devolved and nations have published separate strategies:

Treatment services

The second part of the Black review criticised Government disinvestment from treatment and recovery services in England and called for a cross-government approach to improve treatment. 

The Government’s 10-year strategy included a priority to “deliver a world-class treatment and recovery system.” It committed an additional £533 million funding over three years for local authority commissioned substance misuse treatment services in England. It also established the cross-departmental Joint Combating Drugs Unit to oversee implementation of the strategy. On 9 February 2024, the Public Accounts Committee published a report from its inquiry on the Government’s drug strategy. It found that Government delays in allocating funding had made it more difficult for local authorities to deliver services.

The Northern Ireland drug strategy aims to ensure “access to high quality treatment and support services.” In January 2022, the Northern Ireland Assembly expressed concern around pressure facing addiction services.

The Scottish drugs plan aims to create “a paradigm shift away from tackling drugs as a criminal justice issue and put it firmly in the space of public health.” In 2021, the First Minister announced an additional £250 million to support the delivery of the plan.

Recreational drug users

The Black review also recommended that the Government focus on demand reduction, including amongst recreational drug users, stating: “we can no longer, as a society, turn a blind eye to recreational drug use.” The Government’s 10-year strategy aims to “achieve a generational shift in the demand for drugs.”

In 2022, the Government published a white paper focussed on recreational drug use. It proposed a new framework that would subject recreational drug users to increasingly severe penalties, including confiscation of passports and/or driving license disqualification, for those with consecutive possession offences. People who are dependent on drugs would be exempt and instead referred to treatment. The proposed framework would apply to England and Wales.

Collective Voice, an umbrella organisation for voluntary sector drug treatment providers, questioned the practicality of distinguishing between recreational drug users and people dependent on drugs. An article published by the House of Lords Library provides an overview of the debate around proposals targeted at recreational drug users.

The Government has not published its findings from the white paper consultation.

Tackling the supply of drugs

According to Home Office statistics, police forces and Border Force made a total of 191,623 drug seizures in England and Wales in the year ending March 2023, a 1% increase compared with the previous year (188,929). Border Force also seized the highest number of total seizures on record (25,834), a 24% increase from the previous year.

A priority of the Government’s 10-year drug strategy is to “break drug supply chains.” The Government made further commitments in its Serious and Organised Crime Strategy 2023-2028, including to deliver an “end-to-end plan to tackle drugs supply”, which includes deploying people oversees to disrupt drugs travelling to the UK; strengthening border controls on illicit commodities; bolstering the Regional Organised Crime Units network; and further investing in programmes to disrupt county lines.

The Criminal Justice Bill 2023-24, awaiting Report Stage in the Commons, includes provisions that would criminalise the making, modification, supply, offer to supply and possession of articles for use in serious crime, including vehicle concealments (or ‘hides’) and pill presses, both used in the illicit drugs market. This Library briefing summarises these provisions (see clauses 1-3).

Northern Ireland has a separate organised crime strategy, published in 2021, which sets out the strategic vision of the Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force. In 2023, the Home Affairs Select Committee noted that Northern Ireland has specific complications in relation to the supply and trafficking of illicit drugs, such as sharing a land border with another country and the role of paramilitary groups in the illicit drugs market.

The Scottish Government also has a separate serious organised crime strategy, published in 2022, which outlines the priorities for the Scotland Serious Organised Crime Taskforce. The strategy states that “drug trafficking remains the largest criminal market in Scotland, with a majority of SOCGs [serious organised criminal gangs] involved in drug crime.”

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