Brexit could threaten the UK’s ability to tackle drug-related crime linked to serious and organised crime, according to public health experts writing today in the journal Health Policy.

The scale of collaboration between the UK and European institutions in the field of illicit drugs is extensive, and it is not at all obvious how it might be replicated after any transition period

Andres Roman-Urrestarazu

The decision to leave the European Union comes at a time when parts of the UK are experiencing a marked rise in gun and knife crimes. Many of these crimes are linked to gangs fighting for control of parts of the illicit drug markets. In 2015, the UK experienced 3,070 drug-related deaths, a 13% increase from 2014.

While illicit drugs are usually regarded as an issue for the criminal justice system, this view has been changing in recent years. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has joined calls for a public health, rather than criminal justice response. This approach was successful in tackling violent crime in Scotland where the Violence Reduction Unit, created in 2005, confronted what was then the second highest murder rate in western Europe by establishing collaborations between education, social services, child and adolescent mental health teams, and community groups.

Collaboration between the police and public health community depends on access to accurate and timely intelligence on the market for illicit drugs, including street price, prevalence of use, volumes of seizures, and the activities of organised crime networks.

However, local intelligence is of limited value if it is not linked to information from elsewhere, including other parts of Europe, say the researchers. The EU plays an important role in assembling the evidence and intelligence to tackle drug-related harm linked to serious and organised crime, but access to this vital information could be threatened by the UK leaving the EU.

A key player in the fight against drug-related crime is the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). However, this agency is accountable to the European Commission, Council, and Parliament, and is subject to the judicial oversight of the European Court of Justice; these are all provisions that the UK government is currently ruling out of any future agreement.

The UK Focal Point on Drugs, based in Public Health England, works closely with the Home Office, other government departments to provide information to EMCDDA and, in return, receives intelligence on emerging developments from agencies across the EU. This information exchange is only possible because of existing EU legislation, especially on data protection.

In addition, the researchers argue, the UK would also lose access to EU-wide databases such as European Dactyloscopy (EURODAC), an information system containing finger-print information on asylum seekers and illegal migrants, and the European Criminal Records Information System.

A particular concern expressed is access to intelligence on newly developed drugs. The European Union Early Warning System on new psychoactive substances, in which Europol and EMCDDA play a major role, provides a means to detect new psychoactive drugs, assess their characteristics, and share information to inform decisions of member states on measures that they might wish to take. Exclusion from this process would undermine a crucial part of the UK’s current drug strategy, they say.

“The scale of collaboration between the UK and European institutions in the field of illicit drugs is extensive, and it is not at all obvious how it might be replicated after any transition period given the UK government’s position on key elements of any future relationship,” says Dr Andres Roman-Urrestarazu from the Institute of Public Health at the University of Cambridge, one of the authors of today’s policy brief.

“We will need an alternative framework of collaboration between the UK and the EU to facilitate data sharing and drug surveillance after Brexit,” said Christina Gray from the Faculty of Public Health Special Interest Group in Mental Health. “But it is not possible to develop meaningful solutions until the UK can make credible, workable proposals for its future relationships with European institutions and, in particular, its willingness to accept oversight of the European Court of Justice.”

The researchers point out that the problem goes beyond the UK’s engagement with the EU. Just as in international trade, the UK benefits from a series of international collaborations with EMCDDA. New provisions will be required for the UK to continue to participate in these arrangements and these will take time to agree.

“Given the enormous challenges posed by Brexit to almost every aspect of life in the UK, it is easy to overlook areas such as tackling drug-related crime,” adds Professor John Middleton, President of the Faculty of Public Health, London. “At a time when European trade in illicit drugs is changing rapidly and when the often-fatal consequences of this trade are seen on the streets of British cities every week, this would be a mistake.”

Brexit threatens the UK's ability to tackle illicit drugs and organised crime: what needs to happen now? Health Policy; DOI: 10.1016/j.healthpol.2019.04.005

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