Illicit drug markets and the exploitation and criminalisation of young people

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this blog post, Dr Keir Irwin-Rogers discusses the harms of prohibitionist drug policies. Keir Irwin-Rogers is a lecturer in Criminology at The Open University. 

For the past five years, much of my work has focused on the harms associated with prohibitionist drug policies. In short, my concern is that our current prohibitionist approach results in far too many young people being violently victimised and criminalised as a result of their involvement in illicit drug markets.

In 2018 alone, 6,383 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 were cautioned or proceeded against in court for the production, supply and possession with intent to supply Class A, B and C drugs. While we lack sufficient data to make precise estimates of the amount of serious violence directly or indirectly linked to illicit drug markets, research suggests that street level drug dealing is playing a central role in the recent rise in knife crime.

Based on a six-month period examining content uploaded by young people to five major social media platforms, supported by interviews and focus groups with young people and a range of adult professionals, I sought to address some key questions around young people’s involvement in illicit drug markets: for example, why do young people become involved in drug distribution, and to what extent is their involvement predicated on adults’ use of threats and coercion?

Tracking the accounts of dozens of young people who self-identified as ‘gang involved’, I collated a database of hundreds of photos and videos uploaded to social media platforms in which the account users created content that displayed the fast money and the luxury consumer status symbols they had acquired through their involvement in drug distribution (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Consumer status symbols and money associated with involvement in illicit drug markets

A number of high-profile commentators, including MP Ann Coffey, have sought to highlight the role of threats and physical violence in forcing young people to participate in illicit drug markets, particularly concerning the phenomenon of county lines. While the data I collected also revealed cases involving shocking levels of violence and physical coercion, in many cases the presence of violence and coercion was unnecessary.

Indeed, the idea that adults are primarily dependent on strong-arming young people into drug distribution was refuted not only by the content on social media, but by young people’s accounts in interviews and focus groups, which highlighted that the combination of status, respect, excitement and fast money associated with drug dealing was more than adequate in ensuring a constant flow of young people into street-level drug distribution.

The narrative suggesting a pivotal role for threats and physical coercion is prone to underplaying a range of structural factors that create the conditions in which it is relatively easy for adults to attract young people into drug distribution, without needing to resort to intimidation and violence.

For example, in London alone, there are over 700,000 children growing up in poverty. Alongside these high rates of child poverty, we have concerning rates of school exclusions: in 2016-17, 7,720 pupils were permanently excluded from mainstream schools, with an additional 381,865 were subject to fixed-term exclusions.

With rates of child poverty and educational exclusion at these levels (in addition to a range of other structural challenges that blight the lives of many children), it is naïve to think we can stem the continual stream of young people into illicit drug markets by cracking down on violent and coercive gang leaders.

I often hear people arguing that another means of keeping young people away from drug dealing is to provide those involved, or ‘at-risk’, with wrap-around support – in fact, a few years ago I conducted research for a social business that was engaged directly in this line of work. Most of the time this work is incredibly resource-intensive and ultimately unsuccessful – youth workers will readily concede that the pull factors are just too great to contend with – but admittedly, sometimes a young person will be supported out of drug dealing and into a job or further education; of course, this is fantastic news for that particular young person.

We invariably ignore, however, the fact that the gap left by the young person we have just helped will almost immediately be filled by another – most likely one of the tens of thousands of young people growing up in poverty and excluded from mainstream education. In short, there is an ample supply of young people ready to become involved in street level drug distribution with only a small nudge needed from someone already involved.

Although motivated by good intentions, these care and support tactics are fundamentally flawed from the outset. If I’m being cynical, however, they do provide a continual stream of funding for public and third sector organisations, which pays the salaries of those purportedly involved in solving the problem. Similarly, the police receive huge sums of money to supposedly tackle the drug trade. Yet, despite billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on suppression and enforcement in recent decades, the size of the illicit drugs market has continued to grow (and is projected to grow in future years).

Like it or not – and many people don’t – the only feasible way of preventing young people being drawn into street-level drug distribution – and consequently of reducing the criminalization and violent victimization of thousands of young people every year – is to legalise and regulate the drug markets.

While a £5-6 billion illicit drug market continues to exist in the UK, neither an increase in the severity of criminal justice enforcement, nor enhanced levels of care and support, will prevent the flow of vulnerable young people into street level drug distribution. Pretending otherwise will prolong the suffering and misery of those embroiled in the toxic trap of illicit drug markets, vast inequalities, and a rampant culture of hyper-competitive consumer capitalism – a trap which I discuss in more detail in a forthcoming article in Critical Criminology.

This blog was originally posted as a Centre for Crime and Justice Studies Comment on 8 October 2019.

Crime at the Car Wash? Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA

A report on a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery

Louise Westmarland, Professor of Criminology and Steve Conway, Lecturer, PuLSE at the Open University, organised a conference in November 2018 bringing together police practitioners and academics working in the field of organised crime. This was held with thanks to funding from HERC and the BSC.

What is the National Crime Agency (NCA) and how does it deal with organised crime?

On 2 November 2018, the BSC’s Policing Network, in collaboration with the Open University’s Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) held a conference on Serious Organised Crime and a View from Inside the NCA at the Open University in Milton Keynes. Details of the event and the speakers are available on the HERC website.

The event gathered a mix of academics and practitioners to consider recent developments in organised crime, its impact and responses.  In recent years, there has been an increasing recognition from both researchers and CJS professionals that a range of organised crimes and social harms can occur in the most mundane of contexts.  Attendees heard about illegal deer hunting in sparsely populated rural areas; exploitation of young people by drug dealers in residential housing estates; and the use of modern slave labour at the local car wash.  The very banality of these settings can further hide and obscure these issues.

Mr Rob Jones, Director at the National Crime Agency (NCA), provided the keynote speech Serious Organised Crime: A view from inside the NCA in which he set out the challenges facing his organisation in relation to cybercrime and county lines. His paper explained the national and international challenges of organised crime. These themes were expanded on by DCI Darran Hill of Thames Valley Police in his paper on The Stronghold Campaign: Fighting Organised Crime in Partnership. Providing a local context, DCI Hill explained the importance of partnership working in combating organised crime, illustrated by the case studies of county lines drug trafficking and successful efforts to close illegal carwashes in Thames Valley.

These papers gave way to a lively discussion about the nature of modern slavery and contributors from the audience included senior officers from the local area. Is it unethical to use a hand car wash as it is possible that the workers are being exploited? If you have used a hand car wash were the workers wearing wellingtons and proper waterproof gloves? After Rob and Darran had given us the police ‘inside view’ on these issues, we enjoyed papers by Dr Anna Sergi from Essex University called From mafia to Organised Crime: A comparative analysis of policing models and then a paper by recent Open University PhD graduate, Dr Sarah Hutton Disrupting Organised Crime?

One of the surprising aspects of the morning conference was the frankness and candour of the talks. Rob Jones’ paper on the NCA was definitely an insider’s view, and the talk about Thames Valley’s efforts related to turning young people away from drug crime certainly raised eyebrows. One of the most unexpected contributions was that Darran contradicted a conventional police view – that all drug crime can be solved and that the war on drugs is being ‘won’.

It was good to obtain the current police and NCA view on organised crime and the response to it from Rob Jones and DCI Darran Hill. It became apparent that their organisations are looking to academia to answer a number of questions in respect of debriefing, evaluating operations and securing expertise to deal with organised crime i.e.

  • What difference police organised crime operations have made (what is the legacy)?
  • How organised is modern slavery and human trafficking?
  • What are the offender pathways into organised crime?
  • How to retain the expertise needed to deal with cybercrime?
  • How to re-balance proactive/reactive policing (especially in respect of policing organised crime) after the balance has been tipped firmly towards reactive policing by government cuts?

From Milton Keynes to mafia?

After a coffee break, Anna Sergi treated us all to an entertaining high-speed ride around the organisation of mafia-type organisations; followed by Sarah Hutton’s ‘insider out’ view (as a cop turned academic), detailing her work with organised criminals, whom, she argued, are actually pretty disorganised. Dr Adam Edwards offered some sage observations, including organised crime policy trends and their analytical focus. As he pointed out in his paper:

The way organised crime is addressed in the UK has undergone a major overhaul in the last few years with the creation of the National Crime Agency. The first strategic assessment provides a good snapshot of the current state of organised crime. However, it points to a lack of knowledge about organised crime and its drivers–some of which could be addressed through research and deeper analysis. If the NCA is going to have a better record than its predecessors, it must work on getting the basics right. Knowing your enemy would be a good start.  (RUSI 2014, cited in Edwards, 2016: 987, emphasis added)

These papers all ended up asking a fairly basic question for a conference on organised crime, namely:

So, what exactly is organised crime?

In fact, Dr Sarah Hutton and Dr Anna Sergi highlighted the difficulties and differences that still exist in establishing a definition of organised crime. This is the starting point for any research into the subject. A good solution was put forward by Dr Adam Edwards, Orlando Goodall and Mark Berry in their explanation of the way that organised specific crimes are being analysed using crime script analysis. Orlando and Mark followed a thought provoking talk by Adam Edwards, who gave us the benefit of his experience and unparalleled knowledge of the field. He talked about Sayer’s (2000) realist social relations approach, from threat indication…and its related problems such as privileging enforcement over prevention, to (realist) causal explanation.

Then the afternoon kicked off into a lively no holds barred discussion, with nearly everyone in the audience taking part. This numbered around 30 by now, having reduced from 50 in the morning (well, it was a Friday). All of the papers throughout the day, whilst from contrasting standpoints, had highlighted an interesting range of largely unexplored areas of organised crime. Until recently who would have thought that the local car wash was a site of organised crime? Or a nail bar?  By providing a detailed analysis of the organisation of different crime types, as diverse as the illegal taking of deer, the speakers stimulated so many questions that the session overran, we went straight to tea break and home.

Louise Westmarland and Steve Conway with thanks to Dick Severns and all the conference speakers, convenors and helpers.


This blog post has also been published on the British Society of Criminology blog, at: /2019/02/25/crime-at-the-car-wash-serious-organised-crime-and-a-view-from-inside-the-nca/

Anaesthetising the Pain: Prison chaos and the enormous demand for drugs

David Scott, The Open University





The revelations from Panorama (BBC, 8.30pm 13th February, 2017) on HMP Northumberland have put the problems of drug taking in prisons firmly into the spotlight. The terrible harms psychoactive drugs create for both prisoners and prison officers are laid bare: secretly recorded footage shows prisoners overdosing on drugs, a prisoner threatening an officer with a weapon and a prison officer collapsing after inhaling fumes from the psychoactive drug ‘Spice’.


Seen through the eyes of an undercover BBC journalist who joined the Prison Service as prison officer, the chaos and harms of the privately run Sodexo jail are revealed for all to see.  Concerns around levels of safety for both prisoners and staff and the ease at which psychoactive drugs are getting into prisons (such as by prison visits, ‘drones’ and prison officer smuggling) are raised by the BBC journalist – who illustrates part of the problem himself by being able to smuggle a camera into HMP Northumberland to record conversations and events.




It is little surprise that the media coverage following the Panorama programme has focused on the availability of drugs in prison and the apparent inability of prison officers to control their supply and use by prisoners (and indeed their control over the prison population more broadly).  Yet the debate should not be restricted to talk of staffing, security and prisoner violence alone.  It is important that we focus on the demand for drugs in prison and the need to increase safety by reducing the harm of drug taking for all who live or work in prisons.  .


Drug taking in prison should be situated within two of the most painful harms of imprisonment: the conscious experience of time and the loss of personal autonomy. It is well documented that prison life is both highly regulated yet filled with emptiness. Drugs distort time and prisons are all about the wasting and loss of time.  Many prisoners attempt to suspend time and find ways to manage life on the edge of this meaningless and dehumanising penal abyss.


Drugs, especially cannabis, can be a means of controlling unstructured time by inducing sleep, thus making time consciousness much less evident.  Psychoactive drugs, like Spice (a synthetic version of cannabis), alter perceptions, moods and can eve induce unconsciousness.  Though the psychoactive drug Spice presents serious damage to health and impacts negatively upon behaviour this should be weighed against the way in which it eases the pains of confinement for the prisoner.


Taking drugs in prison can provide sanctuary and be a means of self-medication and self-help. Drugs can help mask the harsh realities of penal regimes and ease the consequences of being exposed to low levels of mental and physical stimulation. They provide a ready-made anaesthetic and prisoners often take drugs to alleviate physical or emotional pain. Drugs can become ‘chemical comforts’ to deal with loneliness, trauma, isolation or alienation rather than for hedonism. Imprisonment is highly stressful and taking drugs may become a crucial coping mechanism to get through hard times and the mundane daily monotony of prison life.




Drug taking should be considered as a direct consequence of the processes of penal confinement itself and as an important survival strategy for many prisoners.  The problem of drug taking in prison is not new but something that has been present in the reformed prisons since the 1800s, albeit at that time the concern was around alcohol and tobacco and their relationship to prisoner violence.


Focusing only on supply and lapses in security, misses the crucial point that prisons generate on a daily basis enormous demand for drug taking.  We need to take the harms of psychoactive drugs seriously, as evidenced in the Panorama programme, but also acknowledge that a harm reduction approach is the most sensible strategy for moving forward.  In so doing we should acknowledge that the only effective way to increase safety and reduce drug taking by prisoners is by radically reducing the size of the prison population itself.


A slightly longer version of this article was published as “Why there is such an enormous demand for drugs in UK prisons” in The Conversation on the 14th February 2017.

Decriminalising drug use: when will the government acknowledge the harm our current laws cause?

Abigail Rowe

International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research

The Open University

December 2014

At the end of October, amid a flurry of controversy, the Home Office published the findings of an international comparison of the policies adopted by thirteen countries to tackle drug misuse and dependency. The study, which has been widely hailed by commentators as demonstrating that a ‘criminal justice approach’ to drugs is ineffective, was a concession to the Liberal Democrats, who had promised a liberalisation of drugs legislation in their 2010 manifesto and have since been arguing for a Royal Commission on drugs. Several days later, however, Liberal Democrat Minister Norman Baker resigned from his post in the Home Office, alleging that Home Secretary Theresa May had blocked publication of the report for several months, and describing working with her as ‘a constant battle’. The controversy within the Home Office over the report has brought the contrasting attitudes of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives around drugs policy into wider public consciousness, but has also highlighted the uneasy relationship between politics and criminal justice policy.

Although the published study contains no overarching conclusions, the evidence it presents demonstrates that there is no consistent relationship between the severity of a country’s drugs laws and the prevalence of drug use, addiction and associated harms among its population. A comparison between the approaches of Portugal and the Czech Republic exemplifies this. While both have effectively decriminalised the possession of a small amount of any drug for personal use, Portugal has seen improved health outcomes and falls in levels of drug use and drug-related deaths, while in the Czech Republic following decriminalisation, rates of marijuana use remain among the highest in Europe, health outcomes have worsened and drug-related deaths have increased. Sweden, on the other hand, which takes a stringent criminal justice approach to psychoactive substances, has relatively low levels of drug use, although not significantly lower than in some other countries taking different approaches. The Home Office study, then, quite clearly demonstrates that the severity of the sanctions in place for drug possession and use doesn’t determine whether or not a country will have a drug problem. That is, whatever the strengths or weaknesses a country’s drug strategy may have in managing the risks and potential harms of drug use, whether or not the trade in and/or use of psychoactive substances are criminalised is clearly not key to managing the problem.

Despite this, the Foreword to the report – authored, as is usual in government documents, by the politicians who commissioned it rather than researchers who conducted the study – introduces the findings with the assertion that what they primarily show is that different policies work in different contexts and wholesale policy transfer is clearly impossible. More than this, it claims that, read in the context of long-term declining drug use in the UK, the study demonstrates that the Government’s ‘balanced and evidence-based drugs policy’ is sound. This indicates a clear resistance to the opening of a debate around reform of the drugs laws.

Drug use trends - Home Office 2014

Source: Home Office (2014). Despite the government’s claim that a long-term decline in drug use indicates that government policy is working, most of the decline is accounted for by a fall in cannabis use, while the use of Class A drugs has been stable for two decades.

Theresa May has offered little comment on either the report or Baker’s noisy resignation. As the story began to gain momentum in the press, however, the Prime Minister intervened with a clear dismissal of the possibility of any relaxation in the drugs laws. He offered little engagement with the evidence presented in the report, but fell back on clichés of ‘common sense’ and the moral claims of parenthood: the criminalisation of drug use would remain in place because ‘as a father of three children’ he did not want to ‘send a message that somehow taking these drugs is okay and safe’, and that decriminalisation would ‘add to the danger’ posed by psychoactive substances – this last point despite the clear evidence of the report that the ‘message’ sent by the law is not the significant factor in determining the prevalence of drug use. Furthermore, not only would the policy of criminalisation not be relaxed, it would be extended to cover substances currently known as ‘legal highs’.

Cameron’s argument rests on the value of the drugs laws as symbolic, and – supposedly – deterrent. This focus on the immediate harms and risks associated with the consumption of drugs neglects the myriad of other, state-sponsored, harms generated by criminalisation, which range from the violence and instability caused by the illegal multi-billion dollar international drugs trade, to the harms to individuals and communities that come with the imposition of criminal justice sanctions on users. This narrow conception of drug-related harm and the resistance to an evidence-led approach to drugs policy by UK politicians has history over successive governments of different political stripes. In 2000, for example, the Blair government greeted the recommendations of the Runciman Commission to downgrade the classification of ecstasy and cannabis, and to treat possession of the latter as a minor civil offence , with panic, conceding only the downgrading of Cannabis from Class B to Class C when it became evident that The Daily Mail had received the report with approval rather than the expected outrage. Eight years later, however, and against scientific advice, Gordon Brown’s administration reversed that decision and sacked senior drugs advisor David Nutt for criticising the move as being without foundation in evidence. For Guardian commentator Simon Jenkins, who was a member of the Runciman Commission, government resistance to an evidence-led drugs approach to drug use represents a failure of drugs politics rather than drugs policy.

A continuation of current policy means a reaffirmation of the government’s commitment to criminal justice sanctions for those convicted of dealing in, or possessing, illegal drugs. This group accounts for a substantial proportion of the prison population. 2013 Ministry of Justice figures show that 14% of men in prison, and 15% of women were serving sentences for drug offences. This, however, masks the much larger number of convicted prisoners whose convictions were indirectly drugs-related (i.e. not for possession or supply of drugs themselves): in the same year, 66% of female and 38% of male prisoners reported that the offence for which they had been sentenced was committed to fund their own or someone else’s drug use. Not only does it draw very large numbers into our prisons, our current criminal justice paradigm serves those with problems of substance abuse and their communities very poorly. For example, illegal drugs are disproportionately used by minority, marginal and disadvantaged groups – young people, those from ethnically mixed backgrounds, gay and bisexual men and women, and people living in areas of relative deprivation. Meanwhile, while members of Black and Minority Ethnic groups use drugs at a lower rate than the population as a whole, for example, they are more often stopped and searched under drugs laws, and receive more severe sanctions for drugs possession offences when convicted.

Not only is the criminal justice approach to the use of psychoactive substances fundamentally problematic, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to maintain the status quo in drugs policy comes at a time of mounting strain in the criminal justice system. At close to 86,000, the prison population in England and Wales is not far from its historic high, and in a context of budget cuts, reduced staffing levels and prison closures, the consequence of this is overcrowding and reduced levels of purposeful activity for prisoners. The prison population is being held in facilities not designed to accommodate their numbers, and concentrated into larger and larger prisons, which are known to be less safe. These conditions cannot ensure basic safety, much less deliver the government’s promised ‘rehabilitation revolution’. The number of assaults recorded against both staff and prisoners has increased and, most worrying of all, suicides among prisoners have risen sharply over the last year: clear indicators of a prison system in crisis. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, has issued a clear warning: either the prison population must fall or prisons must be better funded. The Home Office report demonstrates clearly that prohibition is not a meaningful deterrent to drug use. Neither is prison an effective place to deal with problems of addiction: drug use (including first use of heroin) among prisoners is high while the current trend towards larger institutions exacerbates these risks, as prisoners in large establishments are more likely to know how to get hold of drugs, but less likely to know where to get help with problems of addiction.

Over the the last month, the Coalition row over the government response to the Home Office report, and the crisis of rising suicides, overcrowding and violence in our prison system have sat cheek-by-jowl in the headlines. We have a bloated prison system that – while public and welfare services are being cut elsewhere – we can ill afford, and into which we channel thousands of men and women each year, disproportionately from marginal and disadvantaged sections of society, where their social disadvantage is compounded and physical and psychological well-being profoundly threatened. While there is no denying the harms generated by substance addiction, all a criminal justice approach can offer us is what Willem De Haan has described as ‘spiralling cycles of harm’. We know better than this, and it is in all our interests to start doing better.