With Brexit nearly upon us, the UK's illegal drug users have one creeping concern: will leaving the EU stop their drugs from getting in? The short answer is no. Drugs will always find a way into the UK, even if we enclose the entire country in a giant cage guarded by drug-sniffing Predator drones. What will be subject to change is the purity and price of those drugs, and the smuggling routes used to get them here.
Apart from cannabis, British drug users don't often buy British. While we're some of the biggest per head users of heroin, cocaine, ketamine and MDMA on the planet, we've been highly reliant on importation to get us to that point. Our cocaine comes from Latin America, often hidden inside tropical fruit, coffee beans, coal or marble shipments on cargo boats that enter the EU via Holland, Belgium or Spain. MDMA, cannabis and amphetamine enter the UK from the Netherlands, along with Afghan heroin via the Balkan or African routes. Cannabis resin from North Africa still comes via Spain, raced across the Gibraltar straits in souped-up speedboats.
Under current imports regulations, once a shipment of, say, Colombian bananas concealing 500kg of cocaine has cleared customs in Rotterdam, it can move freely throughout the EU. Imports are already checked at the UK border, but in the event of a soft Brexit – which might see us maintaining tariff-free access to the single market via some form of continued customs union – smugglers could expect to see those checks increase somewhat. This is because extra customs checks will have to be imposed at the new UK border on trans-shipped goods, to determine products' origin, quota compliance, and new, applicable tariffs. In addition, sanitary checks and other new, non-tariff requirements will have to be first created, then adhered to. 'Taking back control' also means taking on the responsibility for all the checks European counterparts have undertaken for decades. And more checks lead to more seizures, and less supply leads to higher prices. Leaving the EU under a harder Brexit – in which we exit the customs union entirely – could mean even more goods being checked as they enter the UK. This, however, could be a positive for smugglers.
John Collins, executive director of the International Drug Policy Unit at the London School of Economics, says that Border Force staff would have to sometimes look the other way, or risk food shortages and industrial paralysis. "Given the need to ensure some sort of movement of goods – to prevent a humanitarian situation in the UK where shelves start to empty – we can imagine a situation of goods being waved through with a lower threshold of inspection," he explains.
Professor Anna Sergi of Essex University specialises in narco-trafficking groups, including the Sicilian Ndrangheta, the principal actors in EU cocaine markets. She agrees with this "hidden chaos at the ports" theory, saying pressure to maintain a veneer of control will mean standards drop and more drugs may enter.
"We will need trained people to perform controls; I'm unsure this is going to happen in such a short time," she adds. "It won't be chaos, but instead it will be informality. If you declare, 'This lorry is food,' then [untrained staff might say], 'Go on through with it.' Narco-traffickers will probably ship more drugs, and more will get through, and prices and purity will improve for end users."
Drug supply is not just about trafficking, but also money. The most predictable outcome of Brexit is a weakened pound, because the financial markets hate uncertainty.
On the 1st of January, 2016, £1 was worth €1.36. Today, it's worth €1.14. Imports now cost more. This happened before, in 2008, when the financial crisis hit. The pound fell from $1.97 to $1.60 in five months, meaning UK gangs buying cocaine from the farms of Latin America had to pay almost a quarter more.
That year, wholesale prices in the UK rose by 20 percent, from £37,000 to £45,000 per kilo. The UK's supply gangs handled this by replacing a chunk of the imported cocaine with super-cheap cutting agents such as benzocaine and lignocaine. As a result, street cocaine purity in the UK plummeted to as low as 20 percent, while prices increased. So, come the 19th of March, it's possible that the pound will take a beating, prices will rise and purity will drop.
There are also theories that drug traffickers will try to squeeze some extra profit out of the situation, whether Brexit hits them in the pocket or not. An agent at the National Crime Agency, who asked to remain anonymous, believes prices will increase no matter what happens to sterling: "I expect a wholesale kilo price increase similar to 2008/2009 to be blamed by traffickers on Brexit, when in reality it will reflect profiteering along every step of the supply chain, just because they can."
Mind you, Brexit plays out against a global context. Britain's European departure is coinciding with an unprecedented global glut of Class A drugs. Cocaine, heroin and MDMA are all in plentiful supply – so perhaps there is some leeway in the prices that can be absorbed by traffickers.
Among Liverpool's drug dealers, there is little concern about the drug supply drying up. A £400 million port terminal on the river Mersey, called Liverpool2, is now capable of accepting a new generation of mega ships known as Post-Panamax vessels, which are able to traverse the Americas via the newly expanded Panama Canal. After Brexit, boats arriving direct to Liverpool – and any other UK port – will be subject to one less border check than if they docked in Europe before heading to Britain. And that'll make the route attractive to Colombian exporters.
While Brexit shuts some trafficking doors, Professor Sergi thinks it's a safe bet that new routes into Liverpool2 direct from Latin America will open new ones. As she says, "Liverpool as a city has strong roots in organised crime, and a long-standing specialism in cocaine importation."
What do those in charge of policing the UK's 12,500 km border foresee? Will drug traffickers be able to take advantage of the situation? Paul Lincoln, director general of UK Border Force, doesn't think so. "Border Force's priority is to maintain border security and support the flow of legitimate passengers and goods, and we are on track to increase our headcount by around 900 full-time staff by the end of March 2019," he says – although it's worth pointing out that not all of these new employees will be fighting narco-trafficking.
"Extensive work to prepare for no-deal is well underway, and we are working intensely with operational partners to put these plans into action to ensure we can continue to tackle fast-evolving threats," he adds. "These plans include moving to tried and tested alternative mechanisms already used for security co-operation with many non-EU countries."
If we leave with no deal, increased border checks would have to be imposed so we could collect our own import taxes, and that could mean more seizures, fewer drugs on the streets and increased prices. "It will be harder to move product into the UK from Holland or Belgium than before," a hash and cocaine smuggler tells VICE. "But then, our prices can go up too."
That said, the UK leaving the EU with no deal could benefit drug smuggling gangs in other way. "In a no-deal exit, losing access to key EU information-sharing tools would have a significant impact on the operational capabilities of UK law enforcement," says an NCA spokesperson. "In particular, we extensively utilise the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System, Europol, European Criminal Record Information System and the European Investigation Order. It is important to law enforcement that future UK-EU security cooperation includes arrangements in these areas."
Still, the NCA say there is "no indication" that 'No Deal' will increase the total amount of drugs or firearms flowing into the UK. But, they do add that it's "reasonable to speculate that there may be an increase in attempts to import commodities directly into the UK rather than via some of the traditional trans-European routes", to avoid border checks in Europe before reaching the UK.
A great deal of drugs now enter the UK by fast-parcel and courier service, ordered over the dark web – and Brexit won't change that. But Border Force has just advertised for new operatives to work in "Fast Parcel Operational Teams" to enhance their capacity "to intervene on national security and customs grounds to prevent the industry being used by illegitimate and criminal actors". That means they're soon going to be extra-vigilant when it comes to spotting dark web packs from the Netherlands.
So, should users be stocking up on drugs now while prices are low, borders are open and purity is unprecedentedly high? That's up to them. But the prospect of an involuntarily sober few years in Brexit Britain is, for many people, a bleak prospect indeed.