Drug bust

Recent weeks have seen a series of high profile drug busts in the UK. Some of these have been linked to a pan-European police infiltration of mobile phone networks (Operation Venetic), while others follow a Home Office-led operation to target county lines supply.

As is to be expected, Ministers have hailed these as evidence of success in the battle against drugs. Equally predictably, those of us who oppose a criminal justice-led approach point out the evidence (both lived experience and the Home Office’s own analysis) that such disruptions often lead to spikes in violence, while having little effect on long term trends.

From an objective perspective, the question that matters is whether these raids have had a measurable impact on drug supply. That is: have they affected availability? Have they affected the price of illegal drugs? And, since it is a likely outcome of reduced supply, have they impacted on the purity of the drugs on sale?

Importantly, these are only the basic measures. What really matters is whether impacting on those drivers has produced better or worse outcomes in terms of health, violence, and community safety. None of these are givens, and assessing whether high profile seizures have worked requires an assessment. To know if an operation has achieved its intended outcomes, Government needs to know the impact on key drivers.

So, these were exactly the questions SNP MP Kenny MacAskill asked of the Home Office in a written question this week. MacAskill asked what assessment the Minister had made of the impact of recent seizures on the availability, price and purity of drugs in the illegal market. The response is worth reading in full:

The Government is committed to tackling global drugs supply and reducing the violence and harm associated with the illegal drugs market. Operation VENETIC targeted EncroChat, a global encrypted communications service that was used exclusively by serious and organised criminals to coordinate their illicit activities, including drugs trafficking.

There were 60,000 global users of EncroChat and 10,000 users in the UK, resulting in a significant volume of intelligence that UK law enforcement continue to act on. As a result, the impact on the (i) availability, (ii)) price and (iii) purity of drugs in the illegal market, by drug type and (iv) levels of violence associated with the illegal drug market has not been assessed.

In other words: the operation is complex and ongoing, therefore no assessment has been made of its key impacts. Importantly, there is also no suggestion here that such an evaluation will take place in future. It’s rather like someone buying a car, but not checking it actually drives – on the grounds that engines are complicated.

What does this tell us? Is it that, as far as Government is concerned, the measure of success is simply the complexity of the operation? That the people gathering data on enforcement are the same as those assessing the market, so they are too busy? That there is simply a lack of on-the-ground information available to the Minister? Or, that the demand side impacts are not considered significant enough to deal with?

One can only hope that this was a holding reply, and that data is being gathered that will allow a more substantial response. If not, then it suggests either serious limitations on intelligence-gathering at the heart of government, or an active intention not to gather essential data against which operations of this kind can be assessed. The former could be addressed with additional support, funding and outreach to the many organisations in the country (beyond just the police) who have access to helpful information.

The latter implies a motivated failure to enable effective evaluation. If that were the case, then we may reasonably ask why? Is it because the outcomes don’t matter, or because they may tell a different story to the narrative that drug seizures are - in and of themselves - proof that the system is working.

Hopefully, it is just a lack of capacity: that can be remedied. A lack of interest in the basic outcomes by which operations of this kind must be judged is an altogether more significant problem.

James Nicholls, CEO
1st October 2020