Europeans using more, stronger drugs

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addictions describes a resilient European drug market with increased levels of use and potency of many drugs.

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European drug markets in 2016

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has just (31 May 2016) published its annual report on the state of drugs  in Europe. This report is unique in bringing together an up-to-date and top-level overview of drug use, drug problems and drug markets, and integrating this situational analysis with information on drug policies and practice.

The report is complex and lengthy and requires reading with careful attention. I’ll be looking at the key findings around different issues in a series of blog posts over the next few weeks:

  • Drug supply and the market
  • Drug use prevalence and trends
  • Drug-related harms and responses
  • How the UK compares with other European countries on these issues

This week’s post summarises the headline findings.

A “resilient” drug market

The EMCDDA analysis describes the European drug market as resilient, with some indicators for cannabis and stimulant drugs, in particular, now trending upwards.

Overall, supply data suggest that the purity or potency of most illicit substances is high or increasing.

The majority of recent survey data on prevalence also show modest increases in the estimated use of the more commonly consumed drugs.

The drug marketplace is also more complex, with new substances available to consumers alongside more established drugs, signals that medicines are becoming more important, and with polydrug use patterns the norm among those experiencing drug problems.

Interdiction efforts are challenged by the fact that production of cannabis, synthetic drugs and even some opioids and new psychoactive substances now takes place within Europe, near to consumer markets.

The EMCDDA argues that:

Taken together this new analysis highlights the need for Europe’s drug policy agenda to embrace a broader and more complicated set of policy issues than has historically been the case.

Trends and developments

Some of the key new developments are trends identified by the EMCDDA are:

The resurgence of Ecstasy/MDMA

(See this post for a more detailed exploration)

Increase in use and purity of stimulants

Cocaine use appears higher in western and southern European countries, while amphetamines are more prominent in northern and eastern Europe. Both cocaine and amphetamine have seen a medium-term increase in purity, with prices remaining largely stable.

Stimulant-related problems are also becoming more visible. Concerns exist about an increased number of new amphetamines-related treatment demands in some countries, with nearly half of these new entrants reporting injecting.

Worryingly, injecting stimulant use has also been associated with recent outbreaks of HIV in some marginalised populations.

Cannabis key challenges for policies and governments

Internationally, and in Europe, there is currently considerable public and political debate on the costs and benefits of different cannabis policy options.

There is also a growing understanding of the health and social costs of cannabis use, particulary for more frequent and longer term users, with around 1 % of European adults estimated to be daily or near-daily cannabis users.

For both resin and herbal cannabis, potency levels are high by historical standards which the EMCDDA says is worrying, as it may increase the risks of users experiencing both acute and chronic health problems. The drug is also now responsible for the majority of new drug treatment entrants across Europe.

EDR 2016 cannabis treatment

The dangers of synthetic cannabis

An equally challenging issue for international and European drug policies is how to respond effectively to the dynamic and constantly changing market for new drugs.

Although informatoin is very limited, synthetic cannabinoids account for over 60 % of 50,000 European drug seizures. Many synthetic cannabinoids are considerably more toxic than natural cannabis, with mass poisonings and even deaths reported.

The threat posed by these substances is highlighted by a warning issued by the EMCDDA in February 2016 about the synthetic cannabinoid MDMBCHMICA — a drug that had been associated with 13 deaths and 23 non-fatal intoxications.

This chemical was identified in more than 20 different smoking mixtures, and deaths or poisoning were identified in eight countries, and may have occurred in others. Consumers of these products would usually be ignorant of the chemicals they contain.

Rises in overdose deaths

The EMCDDA report charts recent rises in opioid-related deaths in a number of countries, mostly in the north of Europe. See this post for more detail on the UK situation.

Use of synthetic opioids

The role of synthetic opioids and medicinal drugs also appears to be important in drug deaths in parts of Europe. Synthetic opioid products, mostly but not exclusively drugs used for substitution treatment, are more prominent in data on drug-related deaths in some countries, and there has also been an increase in treatment demand related to these substances.

Given the severe public health problems in North America with these substances, the EMCDDA recommends improved surveillance to detect any growing problems in this area in Europe.

New pharmacological options for reducing drug harms

The EMCDDA looks forward to the release of a range of new pharmacological options which could help address drug problems. The report highlights naloxone (extensively covered in this blog) and highlights the emergence of new medicines for treating hepatitis C virus infections.

Threats and opportunities of internet drug markets

Again, this is an issue which has recently been covered in some depth on the blog via the EMCDDA’s recent report.

You can see an excellent summary of the headline trends in the EMCDDA’s animated video below:

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