Wales on Drugs IV: The Welsh War on Drugs


The “War on Drugs”– first coined by paragon of human virtue, Richard Nixon – describes the international efforts undertaken to combat the supply, trade and use of recreational drugs since the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotics in 1961 (Part I).
Just like the “War on Terror”, it’s hard to fight a war against a concept, though in some parts of the world it genuinely resembles a war. It’s estimated up to 100,000 people have been killed in the Mexican Drug War (once you include murders) and 220,000 killed in the Colombian Civil War. That’s before you consider the millions of people displaced as a result, and all the wars indirectly related to the War on Drugs – like Afghanistan.In areas where drugs are produced, force might well be necessary in order to destroy the drugs themselves and the capability to manufacture or traffick them. Though if it were a conventional war, the War on Drugs resembles a stalemate, and we would now be suing for peace.In Europe, the War on Drugs is more about winning hearts and minds, with the front line role resting with the civil authorities and legal system.

Drugs and the Police

Neighbourhood policing teams made up of PCSOs and constables are involved in street-level reporting of drug use. That includes responding to queries, PACT meetings, patrols, gathering intelligence and recording things like discarded drug paraphernalia. Drug use isn’t considered an emergency, usually dealt with via the 101 service.

Operations targeting drug dealers, as well as supply and manufacture of drugs, are usually left for CID units, covert operations or the National Crime Agency. In Wales, it’s also the responsibility of the specialist organised crime unit – Tarian – run cooperatively between all four Welsh police forces.

Preventing drug trafficking is generally the responsibility of the UK Border Agency here, and the Royal Navy elsewhere around the world. With the exception of cannabis plants, the majority of drug seizures in the UK were made by the Border Agency – not the police. (spreadsheet Summary Table 2)

In 2012/13, police and UK Border Agency seizures included (street prices based on this and this):


Drug Amount Seized (2012-13) Approximate Street Value
Cocaine 3,032kg + 41kg Crack £142million
Heroin 750kg £41.3million
LSD 23,000 doses £60,000
Herbal Cannabis 12,267kg £65million
Cannabis Resin 11,320kg £44million
Amphetamines 1,375kg £17.9million
Anabolic Steroids 1,457,000 doses £292,000
Ketamine 244kg £5.1million
Ecstasy 434,000 doses £2.75million


According to the Office of National Statistics, (spreadsheet Table P1) in 2012-13 there were 12,217 recorded drug offences across the four Welsh police forces, with most occurring in the South Wales (4,954) and Dyfed-Powys (3,263) force areas.

This was a fall of 10% nationally on the previous year – a bigger fall than the EnglandandWales average (-8%) – with North Wales experiencing the sharpest fall in drug offences (-21%). Drug offences made up approximately 4% of all recorded crimes in Wales – though 6% of recorded crime in Dyfed-Powys.

The total number of drug seizures in Wales (spreadsheet Area Table 1) is higher now than in 2003 (12,400 seizures vs 9,140). South Wales saw a spike in seizures between 2005 and 2008, but they’ve subsequently fallen to a similar level as 2003. Echoing the crime figures further up, Dyfed-Powys has seen a marked rise in drug seizures.

When it comes to the types of drugs being seized, one stands out (Area Table 3).  71% (8,800) of all drug seizures in Wales in 2012-13 were related to cannabis, with Class B drugs being the main category for seizure.

Most Class A drugs seizures were made in South Wales (57% of all Class A seizures in Wales), with cocaine and heroin making up 90% of all Class A drug seizures in Wales. In comparison, there were only four LSD, 155 ecstasy and 43 methadone seizures over the same period. The other stand out drugs from Categories B and C are amphetamines (753 seizures) and benzodiazapines (592 seizures).

Drug seizures per million people in Wales (Area Table 4) (4,027) are higher than the EnglandandWales average (3,544), and the second highest of the nations and regions after Greater London (6,134). In fact, Dyfed-Powys has the highest rate of drugs seizures per million (6,521) outside the City of London.

That doesn’t mean drug use is higher in Wales – it isn’t (Part II). It could mean Welsh police forces are more effective at seizing drugs, or see it as a higher operational priority.

Drugs: Courts & Costs

I provided an overview of current drugs laws in Part I, but it’s worth considering the effect drug crime has on the criminal justice system and the economy.

As you can see from the graph, according to the latest Ministry of Justice figures (spreadsheet) the number of drug cautions in EnglandandWales fell from 47,300 in 2003 to 40,900 in 2013 (-13.5%), while drug-related convictions have risen from 84,000 in 2003 to 87,900 in 2013 (+4.6%) – peaking at 97,500 in 2010.

You would estimate the Wales-only figures being around the 2,100 and 4,400 mark respectively.

The only Wales-specific statistics I could find were for cannabis warnings (Table 6b), the four Welsh police forces issuing 3,200 in 2013.

According to the British Medical Association, the cost of drug crime to the UK criminal justice system is up to £4billion per year (including strategies, prisons and policing), andthe wider socio-economic impact is up to £16billion. DrugScope claim up to half of all theft-related crimes are drugs related, with the total value of goods stolen to fund drug habits worth between £2-2.5billion.

At a Welsh level, proportionally it works out to be £200million in criminal justice costs, £800million in wider socio-economic impacts and between £100-125million in stolen goods – an estimated total  cost of £1.1-1.25billion.

Drugs and the Prison Service

In addition to dealing with those convicted of drug-related offences, prisons also have to deal with the rehabilitation of offenders with drug habits, whilst simultaneously clamping down on supply of drugs within prisons.

Prisons in EnglandandWales now have a mandatory random drug-testing regime, which has seen a 71% drop in drug use between 1997 and 2011.

According to the UK Home Office Select Committee, 70% of offenders misuse drugs before imprisonment, half have a drug addiction of some kind, while they quote a Prison Reform Trust report that states 19% of prisoners who’ve used heroin started using afterbeing jailed. That could be because heroin only stays detectable for as little as 48 hours, while traces of cannabis can be left for up to a month.

Despite mandatory testing, drugs remain a serious issue in prisons, with “boredom and lack of structured activity” (Part II) cited in the Home Office account as reasons why drug abuse remains prevalent. Many prisoners report it being extremely easy to access drugs inside – whether smuggled in by visitors, or bought via corrupt staff.

The extent of the problem was revealed further by a Freedom of Information investigation by The Western Mail which revealed a single search at Cardiff Prison, found three bags of methedrone (meow-meow), two bags of cannabis, two bags of cannabis resin and four tablets of opioid painkiller subutex.”

Statistics cited in the report say use of hard drugs is higher amongst those serving sentences of under a year (i.e for crimes like theft) compared to those serving longer sentences, which they say is evidence that drug addiction makes a prisoner more likely to re-offend.

Of course, there’s the question of what happens after release. There are UK Government programmes  funding drugs rehabilitation in prison – resulting in a reduction in re-offending. However, it’s claimed these programmes are understaffed and vary depending on the prison. The success of such programmes ultimately determines whether prisoners with drug problems slip back into old habits upon release.

Drugs and the Health Service

If the courts, police and prisons are left to deal with the legal side of drug use, the Welsh NHS is left to pick up the human costs.

As mentioned in Part I, the Welsh Government and NHS have a 10-year substance misuse strategy. It’s applied in practice via the Substance Misuse Treatment Framework (which also covers alcoholism), and includes specific provisions for prisoners and veterans.

Health Challenge Wales and Dan 24/7 are the main public health campaigns which raise awareness of the effects of drug abuse. While in terms of the Third Sector, organisations like Drug Aid Cymru and – at a more local level – Ogwr D.A.S.H provide independent information, support and services like needle exchange to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

According to the Welsh Government’s 2009 Substance Misuse Services Review (pdf), substance misuse services are tiered:

  • Tier 1 – Early intervention by GPs etc.
  • Tier 2 – Open-access drop-in services.
  • Tier 3 – Structured drug treatment in the community.
  • Tier 4 – Residential/in-patient drug rehabilitation.

Most services in Wales are Tiers 2 & 3, with Tier 4 centres dotted around the country in major settlements.

At the time of the review, there were concerns raised in the National Assembly that released prisoners with addictions were re-offending to access rehab facilities in prisons, due to patchy coverage in Wales. Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central) was the only AM who questioned whether the War on Drugs was working as is.

It’s worth taking a look at how many referrals for substance abuse have been made to get a better idea of the geography and demographics of substance misuse in Wales.

According to StatsWales, in 2012-13 there were 25,000 referrals for substance misuse, with 54% of them related to alcohol. Discounting alcohol, most referrals were for heroin (3,677), cannabis (2,085), cocaine (941), methadone (722) and methedrone/meow-meow (651). Only 116 referrals were for crack cocaine, 80 for hallucinogens (like magic mushrooms) 17 for ecstasy and 14 for steroids.

The vast bulk of people referred were age between 20-49, with those aged 30-39 the largest single group. Amongst under-19s, cannabis (924) and methedrone (321) were the two problem drugs. In the case of cannabis, even more so than alcohol (636). There were only 34 referrals for heroin abuse amongst under-19s.

If the figures on the number of people using drugs in Wales during their lifetime (Part II) are true (135,700) then the percentage who would go on to develop a problem that requires medical intervention is around 8.5%.

In the case of a drug like heroin, the chances of developing a problem are a near certainty, as (based on the figures) Wales’ proportional share of people aged 16-59 who’ve used heroin in their lifetime is just 1% (1,370 people), yet there were more than 3,600 referrals for heroin.

For cannabis, the percentage of lifetime users (~41,000) going on to develop a problem is just 5%.

Next, it’s worth looking at where the referrals are and how often they occur (StatsWales).

The number of referrals is near enough directly proportional to population, so there’s not much you can tell from it. The highest number was in Cardiff (859), with Rhondda Cynon Taf (654), Carmarthenshire (483), Newport (469) and Swansea (468) standing out.

Drug misuse referrals along the north Wales coast are lower than you might expect considering the reputation, with Denbighshire (188) and Anglesey (145) having some of the lowest number of referrals in Wales, with Anglesey and Ceredigion (145) coming in joint-lowest.

Although drug abuse has been linked to high levels of deprivation as a result of industrial decline, some parts of Wales fare better than others.

Neath Port Talbot (256) and Bridgend (266) have almost the same number of referrals as Merthyr Tydfil (244) and Blaenau Gwent (259) – despite the big differences in population.

So to get a real indication of how prevalent harmful levels of drug abuse are in a community, the important figure is the incident rate (of referrals) per 100,000 people. It’s clear some parts of Wales have a bigger problem than others.

There’s one big cluster in south east Wales, headed by Merthyr Tydfil (414 referrals per 100,000), Blaenau Gwent (370) and Newport (320). Swansea (195) defies stereotypes by having a lower referral rate than Carmarthenshire (262); while Wrexham (263) and Anglesey (206) also stand out as areas with high incident rates.

It’s therefore hard to tell which parts of Wales have the most pronounced drug problem. It would be a mistake to put much truck in the high incidence figures in Anglesey, Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent because it’s skewed by low populations – though it will almost certainly mean that the public will be more likely to come across drug problems there and see its visible effects.

The “worst” local authorities will score highly on both number of referrals and incidences relative to their population size. Weighing it up, Newport probably tops the table.

Illegal drug use has skyrocketed in North Korea as people try to escape their miserable existence under a totalitarian regime. So it’s no surprise that Carmarthenshire – The Best Local Authority in Wales™ – arguably has the second worst drug problem of any Welsh local authority. This is exemplified by news yesterday that 1kg of cocaine (street value ~£46,000) was recently trafficked into the county.

Drugs and The Funeral Industry

Although 131 people died specifically from drug misuse in 2012 (spreadsheet Table 1), 214 people in Wales died from all drug-related causes (including drug poisoning) – excluding alcoholism.

As you can see from the graph, the number of deaths has steadily increased over the last two decades. Roughly two-thirds to three quarters of all drug deaths are men, and that trend has remained steady throughout the period.

This could imply several things:

  • Street drugs are getting “stronger” – it’s a unregulated market after all.
  • Street drugs are being cut with more dangerous fillers due to disruption to supplies around the world – again, it’s unregulated.
  • People are increasingly mixing drugs into more dangerous combinations, or taking them with alcohol (around 30% of all drug poisonings involve a drug and alcohol being taken at the same time – Table 6c).
  • People who’ve developed long-term drug problems over the last few decades have done enough cumulative damage to their bodies they’re dying in greater numbers.
Across EnglandandWales, most deaths were related to accidental poisoning (Table 3), though a significant chunk (308) were suicides by drug overdose, with the split roughly 50-50 between men and women (in terms of suicides).It’s worth taking a look at precisely which drugs cause mortality, once you include legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco (figures from 2011 here pdf p34) and prescription drugs. There are no official figures for caffeine-related deaths, but it does happen.

The first thing to note is that tobacco-related deaths are way out in the lead in terms of deaths caused by all drugs in Wales, killing as many as 5,450 people in 2011. Alcohol was second, with 504 deaths in 2012 – though I’m not sure if that includes all deaths indirectly as a result of alcohol, like fights, accidents, choking etc.Deaths from other drugs are just a tiny slither, and not all of them will have be caused by illegal narcotics. Although the only figures I could find for mortality where a single drug was implicated (Table 6b) were for EnglandandWales combined, I’m sure the figures ring true at a Welsh level alone.

Unsurprisingly, the most lethal drugs in terms of prescription drugs and narcotics were opioids – heroin, morphine, methadone and prescription opioids like codeine and tramadol. Combined, they were the sole cause of death for 590 people in EnglandandWales in 2012.

However, paracetamols (97) killed more people than ecstasy (13). Anti-depressants (169) killed more than four times as many people as cocaine (39) or three times as many as amphetamines (49).

In 2012, a single person in EnglandandWales was reported to have died exclusively as a result of cannabis.

If I told you that there was something fifty five times more deadly than that, you would be worried.

You would wonder what public menace would be so many times more illicit, dangerous and lethal than an illegal narcotic like cannabis. The same cannabis we’re fighting a “war” to eliminate from the planet, and to which the police and other authorities like the NHS devotes so much time and resources towards fighting.

If you couldn’t be bothered to look at the chart above, the answer is….


55 people were killed by helium in 2012.

This isn’t some bizarre short term trend either, it’s been noticeable for several years. Helium is an inert gas so to kill you it has to be the only thing you breathe in.

Those fifty five must’ve been so desperate to sound like The Chipmunks they accidentally picked up a Darwin Award. Or – more likely to be the case, and a lot less funny – they were committing suicide.

The cold hard fact is, more people in EnglandandWales died in 2012 because of helium abuse than cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy combined – and twice as many people died from helium than “legal highs” (notwithstanding the fact that helium probably counts as a “legal high” itself).

Cannabis has nothing on Pennywise the Clown. I look forward to AMs discussing this threat to public health as a matter of urgency, declaring War on Balloons.

It’s right to point out that if the figures were based on how many people were actually using the drug (paracetamols are used by tens of millions in EnglandandWales, ecstasy by a few hundred thousand) then the chance of being killed by a narcotic are greater. The actual numbers dying or becoming addicted on the ground though are relatively small – drugs like heroin aside.

Substance misuse education

One of the best ways to tackle a problem is prevention. The Welsh Government’sguidance on substance misuse education (pdf) covers tobacco and alcohol as well as solvents and narcotics. In terms of lessons, it mostly falls under Personal and Social Education (PSE).

Precisely how the subject is delivered is up to individual schools, though the Welsh Government provides an All Wales School Liaison Core Programme which sends School Community Police Officers (SCPOs) into schools to help deliver lessons on substance misuse. This approach also draws together youth services and local authorities, leading to things like a recent film highlighting the dangers of methedrone.

In terms of what’s covered, the guidance says lessons on drugs should, amongst other things:


  • Identify young people’s existing awareness of substances.
  • Offer a range of styles and learning activities.
  • Provide accurate and balanced facts, and not arouse fear.
  • Be age-appropriate for the audience.

For younger children (7-14 year olds), the emphasis is on taking action to keep themselves safe, knowing that their behaviour has consequences, evaluating media messages and being able to identify the substances themselves.For older children (14-19 year olds), the emphasis is more on the legal consequences of substance misuse, knowing how to make an informed decision, how to access advice, and coping with lifestyle changes that could impact their self-esteem and lead them down the road to drug abuse.

There’s also guidance on how to treat drug incidents in schools – ranging from drug paraphernalia being littered, to sale of drugs on school premises. It states “immediate action is required if there’s a clear safety risk” , and that covers pupils, parents/guardians and staff.

When I was at school, anything involving drugs meant an immediate permanent exclusion and police involvement. It appears that’s changed since, and there’s more emphasis on health and counselling, keeping police involvement to a minimum.

It doesn’t always work of course. Use of drugs at home was cited in an Assembly inquiry last year as a cause for truancy and poor school behaviour, while a BBC Wales investigation in 2010 found some 404 Welsh children aged 12-17 were hospitalised for drug abuse, and 833 for alcohol abuse.

In addition, according to StatsWales, in 2011-12 there were 418 exclusions relating to substance misuse in Welsh schools, and 8 of those were permanent.

Part V explores issues around drugs classification, legality of recreational drugs and public attitudes towards drug-taking, asking “Is drug prohibition working?”