Europeans are spending at least EUR 30 billion on drugs each year at retail level, making the drug market a major source of income for organised crime groups in the European Union. This figure is from the 2019 EU Drug Markets Report, released by the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) and Europol published on Tuesday (26 November 2019). Around two-fifths of this total (39%) is spent on cannabis, 31% on cocaine, 25% on heroin and 5% on amphetamines and MDMA.
The two agencies have joined forces to provide their third state-of-the art overview of the European illicit drug market. The report covers trends along the supply chain from production and trafficking to distribution and sales. It describes how the drug market has wide-ranging impacts on both health and security and how a holistic approach is crucial for effective drug control policies.
Estimated to be worth at least EUR 11.6 billion, this is the largest drug market in Europe, with some 25 million Europeans (15–64 years) having used the drug in the past year. The report illustrates that, while cannabis herb and resin still dominate, cannabis products are increasingly diverse in Europe. High-potency extracts, cannabis-based medicinal and health-orientated products and an increasing number of cannabidiol (CBD) or low-THC products are being sold in a range of forms. This makes close monitoring of their potency and potential health effects essential. Increased violence between organised crime groups dealing in cannabis is putting an added strain on law enforcement.
Opioid use still accounts for the largest proportion of harms, including deaths, associated with illicit drug consumption in the EU. With some 1.3 million problem opioid users (mainly of heroin) in the EU, the estimated retail value of the heroin market is at least EUR 7.4 billion per year. The Balkan route remains the key corridor for heroin into the EU, but there are signs of increased heroin trafficking along the Southern route, particularly through the Suez Canal. There is also evidence of diversion and trafficking of the heroin precursor acetic anhydride from the EU to heroin producing areas. Highly potent synthetic opioids (e.g. fentanyl derivatives) represent a growing health risk.These are increasingly traded online and dispatched by post, often in small packages containing large numbers of potential user doses.
This is the second most commonly consumed illicit drug in the EU, with a market retail value estimated at EUR 9.1 billion. Around 4 million Europeans (15–64 years) report having used the drug in the past year. Use is still concentrated in the south and west of Europe but the market appears to be spreading. Record production in Latin America has intensified trafficking to the EU (mainly in maritime containers), where record seizures have been recorded. The presence of European organised crime groups in Latin America allows them to manage the supply chain ‘end-to-end’. This may be driving competition within the cocaine market, which is linked to violence within the EU. The EU appears to be emerging as a transit area for cocaine destined for other markets (e.g. Middle East, Asia).
Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA
These make up around 5% of the total EU drug market, with an estimated EU retail market value of at least EUR 1 billion for amphetamine and methamphetamine and EUR 0.5 billion for MDMA. Around 1.7 million Europeans (15–64 years) have tried amphetamine or methamphetamine in the past year and some 2.6 million have tried MDMA (‘ecstasy’). Production of these substances takes place sometimes on an ‘industrial scale’ within the EU for domestic consumption and for export. New production methods yield purer and cheaper products, with organised crime groups controlling the whole logistics chain.
New psychoactive substances (NPS)
These are diverse substances which are not subject to international drug controls. The value of the NPS market is unknown, however 55 NPS were reported to the EU Early Warning System in 2018, bringing the total number of NPS monitored to 731.The main source countries are China and, to a lesser extent, India.Policy responses and law enforcement activity in source countries are thought to have contributed to the slow-down in appearance of NPS (101 were reported in 2014). But NPS continue to pose serious cross-border threats to health, with potent synthetic opioids, cannabinoids and ‘fake’ benzodiazepines appearing on the market, associated with reports of health emergencies and deaths.