A Scottish Government-funded project has found that organised crime is part of everyday life in many communities. The study found diversification in criminal activity in territorially-defined communities but highlighted that the harmful impact of the illicit drug market is the primary area of concern. The final report provided a behind-the-scenes look at the broader community experiences of organised crime. The voices and perspectives of offenders in organised criminal networks were largely absent from the report as it relied on the interpretation of frontline practitioners.

Our research, published this week in the International Journal of Drug Policy, helps fill this gap. We conducted in-depth interviews with 42 present and former offenders aged 16-35 and asked them to reflect upon their criminal trajectories, focusing on their involvement in organised criminal networks and drug supply.

Most interviewees indicated that drugs entered Scotland mainly via northern England, and many talked about having made runs, collections and pick-ups from south of the Border. Some indicated that Northern Ireland had emerged as a UK regional hub for drug trafficking. Several described the way in which imported cannabis entered mainland Britain in the south of England and midway collection points for Scottish dealers were not uncommon.

Many interviewees’ drug dealing careers started with the “social supply” of cannabis bought from others but they progressed to in-house cultivation, giving more control over their product. A common theme was promptly progressing from selling to friends and acquaintances to selling to “customers”, and from selling cannabis onto selling harder drugs such as cocaine due to access to drug markets. Some dealers commuted out of the bigger cities to provincial markets to wholesale and retail their product. Commuting helped retailers boost profits but was predicated on the use and exploitation of children or vulnerable young adults as drugs runners. Street gangs, not the traditional crime families prominent in Scottish distribution networks, were also involved.

Our respondents also indicated that a more contemporary modification to distribution networks is “digital dealing”. Drug dealing via online apps and social media platforms has emerged as a lucrative development, with synthetic drugs such as Mephedrone easily bought online and dispatched in small, user-friendly quantities. The internet not only enabled respondents to source drugs from further afield, it also fed consumer demand for new illicit products such as steroids or new psychoactive substances.

The Scottish drugs market is in flux. Diversification has led to adaptive distribution methods including 24-hour “dial-a-deal” delivery to your front door, offering new points of entry into the market and new challenges for law enforcement.

The Scottish Government says reducing the supply of drugs is essential to its harm reduction strategy but recognises it needs to know more about the dynamics behind drugs markets and to be alert to emerging issues so that enforcement can be targeted effectively. Our research adds to this knowledge base. The insights from our extensive interviews can inform police and practitioners about the diverse and evolving nature of drug distribution. We hope this will help tackle drug distribution networks.

Dr McLean lectures at the University of the West of Scotland. Dr Densley is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University, Minnesota. The research is published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.