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Tagged In:  Drugs, Substance Misuse

Rising drug purity, the impact of legislation and the growing use of over-the counter drugs are tackled in a new report from DrugWise.

The DrugWise organisation has detailed the current position of the drug scene across the UK in a hard-hitting new report.

Whilst giving indications of levels of drug use and street prices – with input from drug workers, police and researchers – it also offers substance misuse professionals a current and relevant insight into latest patterns and trends across the country.

The document - entitled Highways and Buyways: A snapshot of UK drug scenes 2016 - discusses the unprecedented purity of street drugs, lines of drug distribution, synthetic cannabis, Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS), the impact of the Psychoactive Substances Act of May 2016 and over-the-counter (OTC)/prescription drugs.

Cross-country snapshot

DrugWise continues the topical, evidence-based information and communications work previously undertaken by DrugScope, which folded in 2014. Authored by DrugWise director Harry Shapiro and former Druglink editor Max Daly, the document states: “The idea of the survey is to get a snapshot in time of what is happening with UK street drug markets.”
Evidence was gathered from locations as diverse as Greater London, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff, to Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Essex, Somerset and East Anglia.


Following the last report in 2014, which noted rising purity levels of heroin, cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy), Drugwise discovered this trend has continued, with heroin purity levels as high as 60%. Reasons include users rejecting “the poor quality heroin on offer” prompting dealers to increase quality, whilst the practice of supplying adulterated heroin to traffickers was attracting too much attention and saw importers reluctant to break up consignments. 

The increase in purity may also be linked to the phenomenon known as county or country lines, where a gang from one of the major inner city drug hubs move into an area and take over the dealing network. From a spike in heroin deaths in 2015, fatalities now appear to have levelled out.

Cocaine and crack

In line with street heroin purity, levels for street cocaine (and therefore crack) are unprecedented with informants citing purities regularly at anything between 70%-90%.


While cannabis remains the most popular and widely available illegal drug in the UK, the nature of a market and distribution lines remain vague with a trend towards people growing their own rather than becoming involved with dealers. Several treatment and substance misuse professionals report a rise in people coming forward for help with cannabis as a primary drug problem.

Prescription drugs

With around 10 million people receiving regular prescriptions for opiate painkillers, and a 400% increase in prescriptions for those drugs in the past 10 years, the authors point to an “astronomical amount of drugs obtained legally on prescription” in circulation.

MDMA and other drugs

MDMA (ecstasy) is the third of the UK street drugs whose purity levels have increased sharply over the past two years and remains the drug of choice for those attending clubs, although use extends far beyond those locations. Other drugs in regular use include Ketamine, Methamphetamine, Mephedrone, and Amphetamine.

Act shows signs of success

The Psychoactive Substances Act, which aimed to close high street retail outlets for NPS by making it an offence to manufacture, import, and supply and distribute any substance deemed to be psychoactive, appears to have had some success, particularly in respect of SCRAs such as spice.

More “settled” drug landscape

In conclusion, DrugWise suggest the drug scene has ‘settled down’ after the whirlwind of political and media attention surrounding the legal status of NPS. While the more established drugs have captured ground lost to NPS, the portal remains open for a range of synthetic drugs bought or supplied via the web to gain some traction. One development that needs careful watching, say DrugWise, is the high numbers using opiate painkillers, tranquillisers and antidepressants with the “the lines between legitimate medical, problematic and recreational use” becoming “very blurred.”

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