UK is the world’s biggest exporter of legal cocaine and heroin, show new figures

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The UK is the world’s biggest exporter of legal cocaine and heroin, new figures show, prompting campaigners to call on the government to regulate the drugs trade.

According to a new report, the UK exported 57kg of legal cocaine in 2016, far ahead of the next biggest exporter, the Netherlands, which shipped out 13.7kg the same year.

Britain also imported 330kg of legal cocaine in 2016, about 83 per cent of global demand, and accounted for almost half of cocaine consumption for medical purposes (90kg).

More than a tonne of heroin was legally produced around the world in 2016, of which more than half was manufactured in the UK. It exported 535kg of the opioid – about 85 per cent of global exports. Switzerland was the biggest importer. 

Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform, a pro-regulation think tank, says the data shows the legalisation and regulation of drugs can and does work. 

“People often say ‘How would you legalise these drugs?’. You can just go, ‘Well the legal production of these drugs already exists’,” he told The Independent

“All this carnage associated with the illegal cocaine and heroin market is unnecessary – we can show there are these legal markets that aren’t associated with any of these problems of terrorism and crime and violence, stabbings on the streets of London and all the rest of it.” 

Heroin is still used as a painkiller in Britain, often as a paediatric nasal spray, while cocaine is sometimes used as a local anaesthetic for minor ear, nose and throat surgery.

“Because cocaine and heroin have been part of our medical history for an awfully long time, they are just still part of the pharmacopoeia and still in relatively common use,” Mr Rolles said. 

The emergence of the UK’s legal drug trade figures comes as the risks associated with the illegal cocaine and heroin trade appear to be worsening.  

An investigation by Vice revealed that the number of in-patients in UK hospitals with a primary diagnosis of “mental and behavioural disorders due to use of cocaine” has risen 90 per cent in the last four years. Meanwhile, government figures showed the number of people who suffered heroin-related deaths more than doubled between 2012 and 2016.

“With the UK’s legal heroin and cocaine there is no deforestation and toxic aerial spraying; no funding for paramilitary or terrorist groups; no enrichment of violent cartels; no exploitation of impoverished drug couriers; no street dealing and gang violence; and no adulterated drugs or sharing of dirty needles in back streets,” Mr Rolles said. 

“These problems are entirely created by prohibition, and they disappear when these drugs are strictly regulated and taxed.

“Drug prohibition doesn’t get rid of drugs – it just hands the market to criminals and makes it vastly more dirty and dangerous. We know what effective regulation looks like – we only have to look at our world-beating legal industry.

“We have a choice: we can leave the trade in the hands of organised criminals and unregulated dealers, or we make them available through doctors, pharmacists or licensed retailers. There’s no third option where heroin and cocaine magically disappear.”

According to the International Narcotics Control board’s report, Peru is the only country in the world legally exporting coca leaf – the plant which contains the cocaine alkaloid. 

The US is the only country which imports Peru’s coca leaf – about 133 tonnes in 2016 – which is uses to extract flavouring agents and manufacture the drug as a by-product. 

The UK and other countries are then able to import the finished product from America.