What do we know about drug crime?

Work with Offenders looks at a new House of Commons briefing

The House of Commons Library is a wonderful institution, albeit one little-known outside the confines of the Palace of Westminster. The Commons Library provides a range of services for MPs and their staff, including impartial research and access to resources and training. In particular, it publishes politically impartial policy analysis and statistical research, free for all to read in a range of formats including quick-read articles, in-depth research, and interactive data visualisations. MPs and those who work for them can request information and research from the Library team of subject specialists who answer requests related to legislation, policies, constituency-level statistics and more.

One of the key functions of the Library is the series of practical briefings it prepares every week so that MPs can be fully informed about the topics they are debating.

Earlier this week, The House of Commons Library published a new briefing paper on drug crime in England and Wales. The value of the paper is that it is entirely factual, presenting the best data available to us without seeking to analyse the underlying reasons and distorting the information through any political prism.

The briefing includes the latest data on recorded crime, proven offences and offenders, hospital admissions and drug-related deaths. Before looking at this information, it is important to emphasise that the briefing is about drug offences, that is to say crimes relating to the possession, cultivation or dealing of illegal substances – not drug-related crime such as the tens of thousands of offences of shoplifting, fraud and burglary committed by people dependent on drugs who need money to fund their addiction.

Drug trends

The headline findings of the report are set out below:

Recorded crime

In 2019/20, there were around 175,000 drug offences recorded by the police in England and Wales. This is 13% higher than 2018/19.

Drug crime by police force area

Merseyside recorded the highest rate of drug offences 8.3 per 1,000 population in 2019/20, up from 6.1 in 2018/19. Warwickshire had the lowest rate of 1.6 offences per 1,000 individuals (the same as the previous year).

Proven offences and offenders

In 2018/19, there were around 48,800 disposals given (cases dealt with) for drug offences. Between 2008/09 and 2018/19, the proportion of drug offenders receiving a caution fell from 46% to 30%, while the proportion receiving a custodial sentence increased from 9% to 16%.

Hospital admissions

There were 13 hospital admissions per 100,000 population due to drug related mental and behavioural disorders in England in 2018/19, and 19 per 100,000 in Wales. In the same year, there were also 32 hospital admissions per 100,000 due to poisoning by drug misuse in England and 32 per 100,000 in Wales.

Drug related deaths

Drug related deaths have increased year on year from 2,652 in 2011 to 4,393 in 2019 (representing a 66% increase). Data prior to 2011 is not directly comparable. Between 2017 to 2018 (the most recent data available) saw the largest annual increase in deaths (16%) since the time series began.

Stop and search 

The briefing contains a lengthy section on the use of Stop and Search in relation to drug offences. As readers will know, Stop and Search has always been a controversial issue with policymakers trying to balance the powers of police to detect crime and arrest criminals with the fact that Stop and Search has always been disproportionally used on people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The controversy has always been particularly fiercely fought in London and has been increasingly in the news since the election of a new government and the appointment of Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police with both the new Home Secretary, Pritti Patel and Ms Dick being stronger advocates of Stop and Search than their immediate predecessors who were more mindful of the damage the approach could inflict on community relations.

Nationally, the number of all searches conducted has fallen by 75% from a peak of 1,519,561 in 2008/09 to 383,629 in 2018/19. However, the proportion of searches with drugs stated as the reason has increased over this period, from 36% in 2008/09 to 59% in 2018/19. Since 2012/13, more than half of all stop and searches conducted each year have been looking for drugs.

The Library briefing reports that people who self-identified as White were under-represented relative to the population, accounting for 84.4% of the population but 50.6% of drug-related stop and searches. All other ethnic groups were over-represented, with the exception of the ‘Chinese or other’ ethnic category. People who self-identified as Black or Black British were particularly over-represented, accounting for 17.8% of searches compared to 3.7% of the population. The ethnic breakdown of stop and searches for drugs is roughly proportional to that for all stop and searches.

The main secondary criticism of the Stop and Search powers is that only a minority of searches result in arrests. In 2018/19, 12% of stop and searches, in which the initial reason for the search was drugs-related, resulted in arrest. This represents a two percentage point decrease from a peak of 14% in 2016/17, although an increase by five percentage points since 2009/10 (7%). The finding that less than one in eight drug searches result in arrest is set alongside other data in the Library briefing which shows that drug offences in London declined from around 67,000 in 2009/10 to 37,000 in 2017/18.

This has led to charges in the media and elsewhere that the way in which Stop and Search for drug offences is used is a manifestation of institutional racism.

Anyone looking for unbiased factual information on drug offences can find the House of Commons Library briefing here.