Exploring illegal drug consignments in Scotland

This week, Research Fellows Fernando Pantoja and Ana Morales, share findings from their research exploring the motivation of postal drug deliveries and analysing the packages in relation to drug-related harm.

Project Overview

In recent years, the development of new technologies and particularly the internet, have facilitated the trading of drugs, prompting the move of some illegal markets from physical into online spaces. 

Unlike a traditional drug transaction where the vendor usually delivers in person, the delivery of drugs purchased online remains deeply tied to postal distribution networks. 

A great problem faced by law enforcement was that the same technologies that allow buyers and sellers of drugs to interact on the internet anonymously, make it extremely difficult to gather reliable data. This means that relatively little was known about many aspects of these markets, including:

  • the characteristics of drug parcel destinations and the presence of clusters,
  • the possible motivation of drug purchasers (in terms of self consumption or supply),
  • and the relationship between law enforcement actions and indicators of potential drug-related harm.

In order to carry out research into these three areas highlighted above, the Illegal Drugs Consignment project was developed in collaboration with the National Crime Agency (NCA). The NCA provided information about all illegal consignments from overseas that were intended for delivery to Scotland and seized in the postal service by the UK Border Force between April 2011 and January 2016. This NCA dataset was also linked to spatial data from the 2011 Scottish Census and the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation in order to explore local characteristics of the destination of illegal consignments, particularly of those associated with drug use and its harm at the community level. 

The potential benefits of exploring this dataset were enhanced by close collaboration with Police Scotland and other key stakeholders, including health services and local organisations. 

Data Insights

Today we are delighted to share two further Data Insights relating to this project, alongside the first in the series which was published last year by Research Fellow, Ben Matthews, on the geography of postal drug deliveries in Scotland

The first of the new Data Insights, published today, explores classifying the likely ‘motivation’ of online drug purchasers.

Fernando Pantoja's new research found that neighbourhood deprivation was strongly related to differences in the possible motivation of drug purchase. Parcels that were destined for addresses in the 20% most deprived communities of Scotland were most likely to be motivated by heavy use or social dealing, while parcels that were destined for addresses in the 20% least deprived communities were most likely to be motivated by personal consumption.

Our second Data Insights examines supporting law enforcement decision making around illegal drug parcels and the wider implications for drug-related harm in communities.

Ana Morales's research found that packages that posed a higher level of harm, in terms of type and quantity of drugs contained, were more likely to be selected for a controlled delivery by law enforcement agencies. However, controlled deliveries were not associated with wider community level harms such as community vulnerability and problematic drug use. This study suggests that the selective targeting of controlled delivery by law enforcement agencies may be improved by considering the potential risks associated with both the parcel itself and the characteristics of the area to which it is destined. This would be in line with a public health approach to reducing drug-related crime and its associated harms on individuals and communities.

Further Information

In addition to these Data Insights, learn more about our research exploring illegal drugs supply in Scotland on the project webpage or view the NCA Dataset Description here.

This article was published on 11 Feb 2021