Where do drugs come from?

Drugs bought from dealers or underground sources come from a number of sources:

  1. Grown in the UK
  2. Made in domestic labs
  3. Stolen or sold on from chemists or hospital pharmacies
  4. Imported from overseas
  5. Bought online

Drugs come in three basic forms; raw plants (like cannabis or mushrooms); refined plants (like heroin or cocaine) or synthetic (like ecstasy, amphetamine and New Psychoactive Substances (previously called ‘legal highs’). Plant-based drugs like heroin and cocaine tend to be produced in the areas where the opium and/or coca leaves grow because the plants need special conditions. But cannabis can grow anywhere, including indoors, under strong lights without any soil. So while cannabis resin (hash) is still imported into the UK from north Africa, about 75% of the cannabis available in the UK is grown here in so-called cannabis farms, although these are often just ordinary residential houses.

Drugs like amphetamine, ecstasy and mephedrone are often produced in underground labs based in the Netherlands, Belgium and eastern Europe. Synthetic drugs (including synthetic cannabis and a whole variety of ‘legal highs’) are often produced in China and the Far East and sold over the internet. China also manufactures many of the basic chemicals needed to make recreational/ non-medical drugs. It also possible to buy prescription drugs such as tranquillisers, sleeping pills and painkillers from online pharmacies without proper medical supervision.


Heroin often comes to the UK via Iran, Turkey and the Balkans from its place of cultivation in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan – the so-called Golden Crescent

Most drugs that are imported into the UK are brought in by professional gangs and/or those working on their behalf, for example, drug ‘mules’ who swallow drugs in condoms to bring them through ports and airports. Larger consignments come in container lorries, boats, small planes and even in the post.

Some data on production and trafficking routes

According to UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) estimates, cannabis is the most extensively grown drug crop in the world and its cultivation was reported to the UNODC by 129 countries.

The total area under coca bush cultivation worldwide was reported as 132,300 hectares, with Peru, Bolivia and Colombia being the main producers.

Opium is illicitly produced in nearly 50 countries worldwide. In 2015, the total area under opium poppy cultivation decreased by 11% to around 281,000 hectares. Afghanistan still accounted for almost two thirds of the total opium cultivation. Myanmar (Golden triangle) accounted for 20% (55,500 ha), Mexico for 9% and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic for 2%.

The UNODC world drug report suggests that the majority of opiates leaving Afghanistan were smuggled on the Balkan route (i.e. through Iran and Turkey via South-Eastern Europe to Western and Central Europe).

See the main smuggling routes for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine below:

Maps from the UNODC World Drug Report 2016 showing main trafficking routes as of 2014-15

Cocaine trafficking routes 2014

Cocaine trafficking routes 2014


Heroin trafficking routes

Heroin trafficking routes

Trafficking routes for methamphetamine

Trafficking routes for methamphetamine

Updated January 2017