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Drug supply and use bounce back after COVID
The 2022 European Drug Report finds that established drugs have never been so accessible and potent new substances continue to emerge.

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EMCDDA report on trends & developments

The rapid bounce back of drug supply and use following COVID-19 disruption is among the issues highlighted by this year’s annual report from the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA).  The report delivers the latest overview of the drug situation in Europe, exploring long-term trends and emerging threats. At a time when the international situation raises new challenges, the report also looks at how ongoing global events may affect the dynamics of Europe’s drugs problem in future.

The annual review describes how Europe’s drug problems continue to evolve and how innovation is driving the drug market. Drug availability remains at high levels across the EU (in some cases, such as cocaine, surpassing pre-pandemic levels) and potent and hazardous substances are still appearing. The report also reveals how cannabis products are becoming increasingly diverse and how the production of synthetic drugs within Europe is on the rise.

For drug use, there are also signs of a return to pre-pandemic levels. Wastewater analysis, for example, reveals increases in the use of cocaine, crack, amphetamine and methamphetamine in some cities between 2020 and 2021. And, as COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed across Europe, drug treatment and other services appear to have returned to ‘business as usual’, while maintaining some of the innovative practices adopted during lockdown (e-health services, telemedicine).

Post-Brexit, the EMCDDA report no longer contains data from the UK. However, it would be surprising if the main trends identified in the report did not apply to our country.

Hazardous new substances

New psychoactive substances (NPS) continue to appear in Europe at the rate of one per week, posing a public health challenge. In 2021, 52 new drugs were reported for the first time through the EU Early Warning System (EWS), bringing the total number of NPS monitored by the EMCDDA to 880. In 2021, 6 new synthetic opioids, 6 synthetic cathinones and 15 new synthetic cannabinoids were reported for the first time. 

Record amounts of NPS were seized in Europe in 2020, totalling 6.9 tonnes (41 100 seizures). Of the material seized, 65 % (3.3 tonnes) were synthetic cathinones, often sold as replacements to established stimulants (e.g. cocaine, MDMA). Following controls on synthetic cathinones in China, most bulk quantities of these substances trafficked to Europe in 2020 originated in India, probably reflecting market adaptation to legal controls and supply disruptions. At the end of 2021, the EMCDDA was monitoring 162 synthetic cathinones, making it the second largest category of NPS under observation after synthetic cannabinoids (224 monitored).

New cannabis developments

Developments in the cannabis area are creating new challenges for how countries respond to Europe’s most commonly consumed illicit drug. Cannabis products are becoming increasingly diverse, including extracts and edibles (high THC content) and CBD products (low THC content). Europe’s cannabis policy environment is also changing, with the scope of policies gradually widening. In addition to illicit cannabis control, policies now cover the regulation of cannabis for medical and other uses.

In 2020, the average THC content of cannabis resin was 21 %, almost twice that of herbal cannabis (11 %), reversing the trend seen in recent years, when herbal cannabis was typically of higher potency. This reflects market innovation as resin producers, usually from outside the EU, appear to have responded to competition from herbal cannabis produced inside Europe. Also highlighted in the report are concerns around illicit cannabis products being adulterated with synthetic cannabinoids, which can be highly potent and toxic. Users who believe they have purchased natural cannabis products may be unaware that a product contains synthetic cannabinoids and that they are exposed to greater health risks.

Rising drug production, trafficking and availability

The report found that the availability of cocaine remains high, as does that of amphetamines which may be increasing. Interestingly it appears that darknet drug markets may be in decline with social media and instant messaging apps appear to be favoured as a safer and more convenient source of supply.

Conclusion

The EMCDDA report essentially highlights the increasing availability of established drugs with the continual production of new substances. The take-home message from the report is: ‘Everywhere, Everything, Everyone’.

 

Thanks to Mikail Duran for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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