What is the UK’s international approach to drugs?

The main elements in the UK’s strategy for dealing with international drug matters are through bilateral representations and multilateral action.

The UK with its unique position in the UN, European Union and Commonwealth seeks a coherent approach across the three organisations by way of its international drugs strategy, which draws together international and domestic agencies in tackling trafficking and demand.

Tackling drugs: the UK’s international strategy

The UK’s international drugs strategy sets out a strategic approach to the UK’s international drugs effort. Overseen and monitored by a Co-ordinating Committee comprising interested Whitehall Departments and law enforcement agencies, the strategy has the following principal objectives:

  • To reduce the flow of illicit drugs into the UK
  • To promote and enhance effective international co-operation against all aspects of the illicit drugs trade The strategy states that the objectives can be achieved by a range of actions, and that effective UK mechanisms must be in place to achieve them.

The actions are principally:

  • Direct interdiction of illicit drugs, from source of supply to entry into the UK
  • Disruption of trafficking organisations
  • Reducing the profitability of supply by action against money laundering
  • Control of precursor chemicals essential to the manufacture of illicit drugs
  • Reduction of production at source.

Through these actions, the government is aiming for a coherent and comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem from source of supply through to the point of consumption. It allows enforcement agencies to target criminals and their organisational structures (through arrests and disruption and dismantling of the organisations); their assets (through confiscation and anti-money laundering arrangements); the drugs themselves (through interdiction, eradication and alternative development programmes); and the precursor chemicals used in their manufacture (by effective international controls).

UK arrangements for dealing with drugs work outside the UK and its overall policy approach have developed in an evolutionary and ad hoc way. They include:

  • Law enforcement activity in liaison with foreign counterparts
  • Bilateral diplomatic activity, backed up by assistance to foreign governments
  • Multilateral engagement, mainly in the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and G7/8, but also in less formal groupings such as the Dublin Group which brings together EU and other donor countries to co-ordinate policies and international assistance.
  • The international and frontier controls

UK law enforcement overseas

Vital to the national and international anti-drugs operations is the role played by British drug liaison officers (DLOs) who work as part of the diplomatic staff at British missions. Over 50 DLOs are stationed in the principal drug-producing and transit countries – ie, those countries through which drugs regularly travel. Drawn from both Customs and police, the number of DLOs is increasing.

The National Crime Agency

The National Crime Agency, introduced by the Crime and Courts Bill 2012, is tasked with tackling organised crime. It will incorporate the former Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), and take the lead role in the gathering of intelligence about the activities of major drug syndicates. SOCA was formerly responsible for the collection, analysis, research and dissemination of intelligence relating to major criminals involved in serious crime, including the distribution and trafficking of drugs.

HM Revenue and Customs

There are two principal aspects of Customs control for drugs. The first is preventive control at ports and airports and through coastal surveillance. The second is specialist investigations based on information and intelligence gathered from various sources at home and overseas, designed to anticipate and intercept consignments of drugs and arrest the organisers of smuggling attempts.

The UK’s international partners

In fulfilling its strategic aims, the UK works as a partner or member of the following leading international organisations:

United Nations

The UK supports and contributes to the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), formed in 1991 as the focal point in the UN for co-ordinating international assistance and action against drugs.

The UK is also an active member of the Dublin Group (part of the UNDCP), which brings together European Union and other donor countries to co-ordinate policies and assistance towards transit and producer countries. Several initiatives have been taken through local Dublin Groups to seek a greater commitment from governments in both transit and producer countries to tackle the illegal drug trade and introduce appropriate legislation.

The UK attaches particular importance to the 1988 UN Drugs Convention, which provides a comprehensive framework for international co-operation against drug trafficking. The UK ratified the Convention in June 1991, extending it to UK Dependent Territories.

Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND)

CND is the body responsible for monitoring implementation of the UN drugs Conventions. It meets annually to review progress and discuss policies with a view to giving direction to member states and UN agencies, especially the UN International Drugs Control Programme.

Financial Action Task Force

The UK is an active (and founding) member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), established by the G7 in 1989 to develop international measures to prevent money laundering. The FATF has 40 recommendations, designed to promote best international practice in the fight against money laundering. The FATF’s mandate up to and including 2003, which includes creating a global anti-money laundering network and expanding its membership was endorsed by G7 finance ministers in May 1998. UK money laundering experts regularly participate in FATF mutual evaluations of its members.


The UK actively participates in the G8 Experts Group on Transnational Organised Crime (TOC) set up following the G7/8 Halifax Summit in 1995. The group’s mandate was to identify gaps in international co-operation against TOC and propose practical action for improvement. A year later the group presented 40 recommendations to be implemented by states to help combat TOC.


The UK has played key roles in tackling drug problems across the European Union. The European Action Plan to Combat Drugs 2000 to 2004, first adopted by the Treaty of Rome in 1990, stresses the need for an integrated response based on four key elements:

  • Demand reduction
  • Supply reduction
  • International co-operation
  • Co-ordination at a national and union level

The Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) introduces the objective of safety within “an area of freedom, security and justice”. Article 116 in particular provides a legal basis for customs co-operation between member states. Such co-operation takes place through Europol and through the exchange of information by the Pompidou Group – the main forum for sharing of national expertise.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) was established in 1993 to provide the European Community and its member states with “objective, reliable and comparable information at European level concerning drugs and drug addiction and their consequences”.

The EMCDDA co-ordinates a network of 15 national information centres for national focal points, one in each member state. Together with the EMCDDA, these centres make up the REITOX, the European Network on Drugs and Drug Addiction. Each national focal point gathers data and publishes its national annual report on drugs and drug use, which includes government and non-statutory data and information.