Britain leads Europe in producing illegal drugs

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BRITAIN is emerging as the drugs production capital of Europe. For years it has led the way in the consumption of ecstasy, while Holland and Belgium have been the "market leaders" in its manufacture. But now criminal gangs have realised massive profits can be made from the manufacture and export of "synthetic" narcotics.

Drugs officers working for the National Criminal Intelligence Service have found evidence that "synthetics" - chemically manufactured drugs - are being transported from Britain to the US, a trade traditionally dominated by Dutch and Belgian dealers.

New figures from US customs officials show that over the past year seizures of ecstasy have risen from 400,000 tablets to nearly four million - one quarter of them made in Britain. Ecstasy is relatively new to the US, as is the "rave" culture with which it is associated. And the internet has provided criminals with guides to its manufacture.

The NCIS fears a significant increase in the market for synthetics, with the appearance of entirely new drugs. For example, anti-shyness drugs, which are being developed legitimately by pharmaceutical companies, are expected to be copied for the illegal market. Viagra is already being produced by British gangs.

Dealers can expect to make up to pounds 20 for a dose of ecstasy and pounds 15 a gram for amphetamines.

Industrial estates, isolated farmhouses and even boats have provided bases for illegal drug manufacturing. Last year, police raided a drugs factory on a farm in Norfolk which had the capacity to produce pounds 15m of amphetamine a week - pounds 780m over a year.

Les Fiander, a member of the drugs unit at the NCIS, which is instrumental in helping police to raid drug factories in the UK at the rate of one a month, said: "We are picking up intelligence that there is a lot more interest from criminal gangs to manufacture drugs over here.

"They are bringing in chemicals from Eastern Europe where there is a lot of corruption in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Drugs such as ecstasy and LSD are wrongly perceived as `safer' drugs to take, which is part of their popularity and the profits for the dealers can be enormous."

Earlier this month, a member of a drugs gang was jailed for 12 years after police uncovered pounds 29m of ecstasy and amphetamines in his car. The drugs, found with David Annesley, who was planning to distribute them in Liverpool, is one of the largest seizures made in Britain.

The drugs were discovered in five holdalls, illustrating how easy they are to smuggle, according to Pat Jones, a spokesman for US customs. "You can store an awful lot in a small container," he said. "A cigar box can hold a couple of thousand ecstasy tablets, for example. If you stick that in your luggage it can be very hard to detect."