Guest Post from Nigel Kirby - Head of Drugs Intelligence (SOCA)

Posted on March 17, 2011 12:09

Introduction from David Oliver: I have asked colleagues from the Serious Organised Crime Agency to outline some of the activity they’ve been involved in which has successfully prevented heroin reaching our streets. You may be aware through your work, or you may have seen the articles in the current edition of Druglink or Tuesday’s Guardian, about heroin shortages. This clearly poses some challenges as to how services can best support drug users affected. However, we must not forget how enforcement is making the country a more challenging environment for organised crime.

Guest Post from Nigel Kirby - Head of Drugs Intelligence (SOCA)

Heroin shortages have been reported in several locations throughout the UK. Intelligence tells us that a key contributor to the "heroin drought" is national and international law enforcement activity.

Wholesale prices for heroin have increased throughout the supply chain, making it more difficult and more expensive for criminals to do business. In the UK in 2009/10, 1kg heroin at wholesale cost around £15-17,000. Now - when they can actually get it - organised crime groups are trading high quality heroin at around £40,000 per kg. In the twelve months since September 2009 the street dealer purity (around 25 grammes) fell from 46% to 32%. Dealers are adding ever more "cutting agents" to try and maintain their profits and the reduced purity is likely to be noticed by end users - especially as in some instances it is in single figures.

SOCA is working closely with partners on the heroin route from Afghanistan to Turkey and onwards across Europe. We have identified the major traffickers, the nature of their trade, their routes and the facilitators. All the agencies involved are producing high quality intelligence, which they are sharing in real time and acting upon. Law Enforcement has taken action against those involved in the heroin trade in a variety of ways resulting in criminal convictions, lengthy prison sentences, seized assets and damaged credibility within the criminal community.

Last reporting year, activity by SOCA and overseas partners led to the seizure of around 2,000 kgs heroin before it ever reached the UK. Indications are that this year’s figure will also be substantial - more heroin than ever seized overseas before it reaches the UK. Relationships between SOCA and the Turkish National Police are particularly strong and this has resulted in the imprisonment of key traffickers in Turkey and substantial seizures of drugs and money. In just one example, a major Turkish supplier and UK importer are awaiting trial in Turkey after an international operation resulted in their arrests for attempting to traffic a significant quantity of heroin to the UK.

SOCA works closely with Law Enforcement colleagues at the border and across the UK, tackling the criminal organisations that operate in the UK. In one joint operation, SOCA’s information enabled the Police to seize over 100kgs of heroin from the major distributors; and just as importantly - because it hurts them more - over ½ a million pounds in cash. The principal subject of that investigation pleaded guilty and is now serving a lengthy prison sentence.

Sustained activities overseas and in the UK are impacting on the flow of heroin and the ability of traffickers in any country to do business, make money and remain at liberty. We know that’s the case from information received at all levels in the supply chain.

We have a number of current operations, which we cannot discuss, but which aim to maintain the pressure on organisations attempting to traffic heroin to the UK. We know that when crime groups are dismantled, others are always keen to take their place; traffickers will seek new ways to evade detection and profit from crime - so there is a continuing need for international law enforcement to adapt to the challenges.

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3 responses to Guest Post from Nigel Kirby - Head of Drugs Intelligence (SOCA)

  • Adam said...

    March 17, 2011 22:42

    A few questions:

    You say that heroin is now more expensive and more adulterated with ’cutting agents’; is there evidence to show that this leads more people to stop using hard drugs, to improved health outcomes, or to reduced crime or prostitution?

    "2,000 kgs heroin" were prevented from entering the UK last year. Do you have any estimates of what quantity made it onto the streets? What is 2 tonnes as a percentage of the total?

    The "½ a million pounds" impounded in one operation would just about pay for a ten-year prison sentence, so that’s good. Unfortunately, I suspect that SOCA/police operation cost the taxpayer more than the 100kgs of heroin was worth to the traffickers. I hope the outcomes (see questions above) are worth the expense and opportunity cost of police time.

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  • Steve Rolles said...

    March 18, 2011 21:42

    Nigel, you note at the end that:

    "We know that when crime groups are dismantled, others are always keen to take their place; traffickers will seek new ways to evade detection and profit from crime"

    This summarises a historical truth: this is not a problem that be eradicated with enforcement. Your efforts - no matter how well intentioned and successful on their own terms - can only displace the problem: from one crime group to another, from one production area to another or from one trafficking route to another.

    Even when you do effectively curtail supply such that prices rise (and many question the ability to do even this consistently) - there are two predictable outcomes:

    1. a high potential for increases in health harms as drugs become increasingly cut/contaminated, strength becoming less predictable leading to more overdoses, and potential displacement into use of other drugs - such as benzodiazapines - all of which have been observed anecdotally during the recent drought (that you appear to be taking credit for). If there are health benefits in terms of decreased use I have seen no evidence of this.

    2. The rise in price that you mention can lead to increased offending amongst ow income dependent users as well as naturally attracting more criminal entrepreneurs into the market - assuming that levels of demand have not changed (and there is nothing to suppose they have). As you suggest - the criminal entrepreneurs in this market are highly felxible profit seeking entities, and the unregulated illegal drug trade is an almost perfect model of the unfettered forces of supply and demand in action. A new equilibriunm will rapidly be established - any impacts will be temporary, marginal and localised.

    Indeed, one impact of enforcement may be a Darwinian ’survival of the fittest’ effect - where only the most cunning, proffessional, flexible and ruthless prosper, whilst the less effectual and careless are the ones who are eliminated by enforcement efforts.

    If history of the last 50 years of enforcement shows us one thing it is that this is not a problem that can be removed with enforcement - and that enforcement may actually - by, in effect, becoming a system of price support - be part of the problem, creating the very oppoortunity for organised crime that it seeks to eliminate.

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  • John Taylor said...

    March 19, 2011 08:03

    Surely if the price of heroin rises addicts will have to commit more acquisitive crime to fund their habits? It sounds like a complete waste of money that should be spent on proper treatment for people that actually want it. You can’t force people off drugs, much as you would like to.

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