The criminal gangs involved in the drugs trade leave a trail of death and destruction left in their wake, we cannot afford to relent in efforts to combat them

t is impossible to look at the drugs trade in the United Kingdom or anywhere else without reference to organised crime. The two are inextricably linked, from the production to distribution and sale of illegal drugs. Combating their activities will have a much wider impact than just cutting off the supply of drugs. It will impact on the other activities they can be involved in, including modern slavery and human trafficking.

In the UK, the illegal drug trade is estimated to generate between £9-9.5billion each year. The cost of these activities is much higher however, with anywhere between £18-19.5billion spent whether that is in treatment, the judicial system or in aftercare for users.

Whilst illegal drugs impact every single Constituency across the UK, it is simultaneously a local, national and international problem. It will not be tackled without action at each of these levels. That stretches from the need for police resources on the streets and in local communities, to the National Crime Agency which has a central role to play and co-operation with other law enforcement agencies across international borders to combat the supply and distribution of drugs at source.

In raising the debate I was seeking some assurance from Government that not only are they aware of the problem, as everyone is, but that minds will be concentrated on the issue not just in the immediate aftermath of a significant drugs find, but on an ongoing basis and for years to come.

That issue was crystalised more locally when drugs valued at €150million were seized off the coast of the Republic of Ireland. The haul was so significant the ship was struggling to stay afloat under their weight. That seizure so significant that it obviously was not all destined for the Republic of Ireland but obviously for the UK, and wider European market. However, it also highlighted that for every discovery that is made by law enforcement agencies, even very major ones like that, there will be others which successfully land at their destination and feed a problem we all know is not just continuing but worsening.

In Northern Ireland the figures show that drug seizures have been showing an upward trend since as far back as 2006 and with cocaine now proving to be the second most commonly seized drug. There has also been a 98% increase in drug related deaths across Northern Ireland, rising from 110 in 2012, up to 218 in 2020.

Issues have been raised in recent times that the sale and consumption of drugs, which previously used to be a very clandestine activity, can now sometimes be viewed taking place in broad daylight. Alternatively, it can now be possible to effectively order drugs on a social media app, little different to how you might order a takeaway at the weekend.

The need for international cooperation is also particularly important in Northern Ireland, something that was highlighted by the Home Affairs Committee report into drugs published last July. We are the only part of the UK to share a land frontier with another country, but we also have the presence of existing paramilitary groups, many of which have morphed into organised criminal networks and are engaged in the distribution and supply of illegal drugs.

Those groups operate at the heart of local communities and they have an impact often on the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. Their criminal enterprises spread into other legitimate or semi-legitimate businesses to launder money and further extend control over communities.

Like the grip held by some gangs, the impact of drugs is extending further into communities. Whilst people will often first experiment with drugs in earlier life, we are seeing deaths related to drugs impacting people in their 40s and 50s. What may have started as a weekend activity or so-called ‘recreational’ use becomes habitual and ultimately has devastating consequences not just for the individual, but often for their wider family and social circle.

The impact and sophistication of the criminal gangs involved in the drugs trade, and the death and destruction left in their wake means that we simply cannot afford to relent in efforts to combat these gangs and their trade.

Gregory Campbell MP

Gregory Campbell was first elected to Londonderry City Council in 1981 until he stepped down in March 2011. During this time, he served as the DUP Group Leader on the Council. He was also elected to the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue in 1996. He has been the Security spokesman for the DUP since 1994.

Subsequently elected as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and re-elected on each occasion since. He served as the Minister for Regional Development from July 2000 until September 2001. He also served as the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure from June 2008 until June 2009. He remained a member of the Assembly until he stepped down at the 2016 Assembly election. Elected as the MP for East Londonderry in 2001 and re-elected in 2005, 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019. He is currently the DUP spokesperson on International Development and the Cabinet Office.