We are testing a new beta website for gov.scot go to new site

Reducing the impact of local drug markets: A research review Summary

DescriptionThis research summary provides an overview of findings from a study conducted by the Effective Interventions Unit on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce the impact of low-level drug markets.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateApril 27, 2004


    Effective Interventions Unit

    Reducing the impact of local drug markets: A research review


    This document is also available in pdf format (84k)

    This research summary provides an overview of the findings from a study conducted by the Effective Interventions Unit (EIU) on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce the impact of low-level drug markets. This study reviews existing international research literature on low-level drug markets and interventions intended to combat them, or to reduce their effects. The full report also describes some current examples of work in Scotland, based on a series of 'fact-finding' visits by the EIU to nine local areas in six Scottish forces between December 2002 and April 2003. The full report is available from the EIU.

    Low-level drug markets

    Drug dealing occurs at many levels: from organised importing of drugs from abroad down to deals made on the street. This report is concerned with dealing at the lowest level: the sale of drugs directly to users.

    The characteristics of low-level drug markets can be diverse. But it is useful to make a general distinction between open and closed markets. In an open market, a dealer will sell to anyone whereas in a closed market deals will only take place with users who are known to the dealer or who are introduced by a known user. Both markets can occur on or off the street but will operate differently.

    Low-level dealers operate to generate income to fund their own drug addiction, and / or for profit. The experience of police officers in the areas EIU visited is that the majority of known low-level dealers are problem drug users.

    Interventions to reduce the impact of low-level drug markets

    The review of international research highlights the diversity of interventions against low-level markets. The broad goals of these interventions are:

    • supply reduction

    • demand reduction and

    • harm reduction

    These three goals should not be regarded as necessarily separate and distinct. Indeed, some research has emphasised the importance of combining all three aims within police strategies. The reduction of supply and demand can arguably be seen as contributing to an overarching harm reduction strategy. Within these three approaches, definitions of what may be considered as 'effectiveness' vary considerably.

    Reducing supply

    Police enforcement interventions have conventionally sought to reduce and deter drug dealing. The rationale of this approach is that disrupting dealers' activities may cause them to operate less efficiently and therefore reduce supply. Enforcement interventions may also deter novice drug users by making drug purchase more difficult and risky (and may arguably deter some drug dealers). There is little current international evidence that conventional enforcement efforts have a significant and long-lasting impact upon levels of dealing.

    However, the review does show evidence for the effectiveness of intensified enforcement activity by the police against open street markets. This may displace or transform the market. Success can sometimes be short-lived unless interventions are repeated. Such interventions comprise a wide range of policing strategies, often with efforts to increase and improve the collection and use of intelligence, but they are resource intensive and expensive. There is a lack of strong evidence for the effectiveness of similar approaches against closed markets or dealing from premises.

    There is evidence for the effectiveness of multi-agency enforcement against dealing from premises. This primarily involves property management procedures used against third parties, and requires the police to work in partnership with housing authorities, landlords and tenants. Evaluated interventions have all been conducted in the US, where the range of civil codes and statutes that may be used differ from those available in the UK. Other types of multi-agency working to enhance enforcement activity may be effective but there is insufficient evidence at present. Multi-agency supply-reduction measures may also encompass situational crime prevention tactics, which involve making the physical environment less conducive to criminal behaviour.

    Reducing demand

    The aim of demand reduction is ultimately to reduce the number of drug users / buyers in a drug market. Approaches which might contribute to this include co-ordinating and linking police enforcement action with targeted treatment provision. Enforcement and treatment may be targeted in different ways - for example towards a geographically defined market, or towards a certain group of offenders. Such an approach assumes the availability of sufficient treatment resources to cope with demand.

    There is some evidence to suggest that conventional police enforcement may be a factor encouraging drug users to enter treatment. However, it is not possible to assume a causal link between the two. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that treatment can lead to sustained reductions in drug use and drug-related crime, including drug dealing.

    In England there is emerging evidence to suggest the effectiveness of a number of proactive approaches that link enforcement action to treatment provision. Home Office research shows that rates of drug use, expenditure and drug-related crime fell significantly among offenders engaged in arrest referral schemes in England. There is also some emerging evidence for the effectiveness of initiatives targeting persistent drug using offenders for diversion to treatment and support, which suggests that they are effective in reducing crime rates and drug use among this target population.

    Reducing harm

    The focus of a harm reduction approach to low-level markets is the reduction of harm to drug users and to the community in which markets operate. This does not involve abandoning police enforcement activities; the reduction of supply and demand may be seen as contributing to an overarching harm reduction strategy. However it is argued that the adoption of a harm reduction approach does require a re-appraisal of the rationale underpinning the policing of drugs at this level.

    Some evidence from other countries suggests that certain police approaches against low-level drug markets - for example, those involving intensive enforcement practices - can increase the risk of drug-related harm to drug users involved in the market.

    Research has suggested ways in which police can incorporate harm reduction principles. They include:

    • not targeting clients in the vicinity of drug services

    • limiting attendance at overdose to exceptional circumstances

    • systematically collecting and monitoring local level data on drug-related harm as well as illicit drug availability - as a basis for taking account of any counterproductive effects of enforcement activity.

    Little research has been conducted to examine the harmful impact of low-level drug markets on local communities, nor much that evaluates whether and how policing interventions reduce drug related harms to communities. Reductions in drug-dealing and/or crime may be positive outcomes for a community. However a reduction in crime does not in itself straightforwardly increase a community's quality of life, and may not be reflected in a community's perceptions of their local area.

    Displacement or transformation of a market might in itself constitute success. Open street markets may move indoors as a reaction to intensified enforcement efforts. This may mean that the market itself becomes less socially damaging. But currently there is no simple answer to the question of 'what intervention, or combination of interventions, works' to improve the quality of life for a community experiencing high levels of drug dealing.

    A provisional picture of experiences in Scotland

    In the nine areas visited by the EIU, police efforts were focused almost entirely on drug markets operating in residential properties in housing estates. There was a large degree of similarity in the problems local police faced and the strategies and tactics they used. All highlighted the importance of intelligence in directing police activity, according to the National Intelligence Model used by the police.

    High quality intelligence profiles of suspected dealers tend to take quite some time to develop. Local police managers may be under pressure from the community, or sometimes senior force managers, to undertake obvious action in the shorter-term. This requires some management of expectations and a degree of judgement about when best to use intelligence operationally.

    Most of the local areas had, in one form or another, a small proactive team with a remit for tackling low-level dealing. The tasks these teams undertook varied from one area to another, but tended to include a mix of proactive intelligence gathering and enforcement work. Drugs policing is to some degree a specialist role. Officers working in dedicated drugs teams were able to develop a greater degree of confidence and expertise in this work.

    Conventional enforcement approaches by the police acting alone were the most common responses to local markets. Formalised, regular, multi-agency involvement with enforcement was limited.


    Research indicates the limits of approaches that focus simply on supply reduction and emphasises the importance of reducing the demand for drugs. Some research also points to the importance of reducing the drug-related harms associated with low-level markets. Interventions arguably need to be judged in the longer term by their success in improving the quality of life of the community in which the market is located. The potential of intensive enforcement to increase the risk of harm to drug users is another important consideration.

    Emerging international evidence and current innovative examples in England point to the potential of a problem-solving approach that seeks to coordinate, target and link enforcement action and treatment provision. This aims to ensure that any disruption or depletion of a drug market is sustained by providing treatment and support to drug users if and when there is a decrease in the availability of drugs.

    Reducing the impact of low-level markets thus needs to be a shared responsibility across local agencies. Local DAATs or DAAT sub-groups may offer a useful structure to develop the necessary strategic framework but this integrated working also needs to be replicated at an operational level. Clarity about what it aims to achieve and how success will be judged is crucial to such an approach.

    Such an approach seems to have potential to succeed in Scotland. It would build on current innovative and creative attempts to support long-term enforcement by developing more formalised and coordinated multi-agency activity.

    This publication is available athttp://www.drugmisuse.isdscotland.org/eiu/eiu.htm

    or from 0131 244 5117 oreiu@scotland.gsi.gov.uk