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 is still imported, the majority of the cannabis available in the UK is grown here in so-called cannabis farms, although these are often just ordinary residential houses. The UK is also a significant manufacturer of legal cannabis for pharmaceutical use (Narcotic Drugs 2020, International Narcotics Control Board

Drugs like amphetamine, ecstasy and mephedrone are often produced in underground labs, about half of the global quantities of the three main amphetamine type stimulants are seized in just three countries: methamphetamine: United States, followed by Thailand and Mexico (47% of all methamphetamine seized in the period 2015– 2019); amphetamine: Saudi Arabia, followed by Guatemala and Turkey (45%); and  “ecstasy”: that is the United States, followed by Australia and Turkey (54%) (UNODC Drug market trends: cocaine amphetamine type stimulants, 2021) . 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 is also possible to buy prescription drugs such as tranquillisers, sleeping pills and painkillers from online pharmacies without proper medical supervision.

The World Drug Report from 2021 states that opium production is highly concentrated, with 97% of estimated production coming from 3 of the 50 countries worldwide where opium production is reported over the period 2015–2019. The country in which the largest amount of opium is produced continues to be Afghanistan. Afghanistan accounted for an estimated 83% of global opium production between 2015–2020. 2021 was the fifth year that Afghanistan’s production is at historic highs of more than 6,000 tons, potentially yielding up to 320 tons of pure heroin (Drug Situation in Afghanistan 2021).

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.

Maps from the UNODC World Drug Report 2021 showing main trafficking routes as of 2015–2019

Main opiate trafficking flows, 2015–2019
Main cocaine trafficking flows, as described by reported seizures, 2015–2019

Updated July 2022