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The latest (2021) drug trends

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has published its 2021 drug report with the latest trends and developments.

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Wider range of substances

Yesterday (9 June 2021), the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) published its 2021 drug report with the latest trends and developments across the continent. Focusing on illicit drug use, related harms and drug supply, the report contains a comprehensive set of national data across these themes and key harm reduction interventions. You can see a summary of the main trends in the short video below.  As everyone knows, we officially left the EU on 1 February 2020. Because of the time taken to assemble the data for this report, some datasets are for 2019 and the UK is included in these. You can find the full Statistical Bulletin which allows you to select key indicators yourself here which you can then view either on screen or download the data in spreadsheet format.

Headline findings

he report warns of the risks to public health posed by the availability and use of a wider range of substances, often of high potency or purity. It also describes how organised crime groups have intensified illegal drug production inside Europe to evade anti-trafficking measures, creating environmental, health and security risks. Drawing on the latest EMCDDA rapid assessment study, the report explores the recent effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on drug markets, use and services.

Drug markets adapt

The report illustrates how the drug market continues to adjust to COVID-19 disruption, as drug traffickers adapt to travel restrictions and border closures. At wholesale level, this is reflected in some changes in trafficking routes and methods, with more reliance on smuggling via intermodal containers and commercial supply chains and less reliance on the use of human couriers. Cannabis cultivation and synthetic drug production within the EU appear stable at pre-pandemic levels, with no decline seen in the detection of production sites. Although street-based retail drug markets were disrupted during the early lockdowns, and some localised shortages reported, drug sellers and buyers adapted by increasing their use of encrypted messaging services, social media apps, online sources and mail and home delivery services. This draws attention to whether a long-term impact of the pandemic could be the further digitalisation of drug markets.

Benzodiazepines in the spotlight

Specific concerns are raised around the misuse of benzodiazepines, either diverted from therapeutic use or not licenced for medical use in Europe. A rise in use of these drugs is seen among high-risk drug users, prisoners and some groups of recreational drug users, potentially reflecting the high availability and low cost of these substances and pandemic-related mental health issues.

Key findings

Despite the pandemic, the report details increased use of a number of substances, with increased purity/strength of many:

  • Cannabis use remains stable at high levels, but increased THC content raises health concerns — Rise observed in the THC content of cannabis resin (average range: 20%–28%). Health alerts warn of cannabis adulterated with highly-potent synthetic cannabinoids.
  • Record cocaine seizures, a worrying signal of potential for increased health harms — A record 213 tonnes were seized in 2019 (up from 177 tonnes in 2018). Cocaine purity has increased and more people are entering treatment for the first time. Preliminary seizure data in 2020 suggest availability has not declined in the pandemic.
  • Stable amphetamine demand makes domestic production near consumers profitable — Alongside the dismantling of production facilities in 2019, chemicals used to manufacture amphetamine were also seized in the EU, including 14 500 litres of BMK and 31 tonnes of MAPA (up from 7 tonnes in 2018).
  • Methamphetamine production and trafficking highlight potential for increased use in Europe — Both large-scale and smaller production facilities are being detected in Europe and large quantities of the drug are being transhipped through the EU to other markets. 
  • Risks to health from supply of high-strength MDMA products — In addition to increases in the average MDMA content in tablets and the purity of powders, products with very high levels of MDMA are also being detected. Preliminary data from 2020 suggest there was less interest in this drug during periods of lockdown.
  • Harmful potent new psychoactive substances continue to emerge — Among these are new synthetic cannabinoids and new synthetic opioids. A total of 46 new psychoactive substances (NPS) were reported for the first time in Europe in 2020, bringing the total number monitored by EMCDDA to 830.
  • Are less commonly used drugs posing increasing challenges for public health? — These drugs include hallucinogens, ketamine and GHB. Worryingly, intensive patterns of use are reported in some settings.
  • Large heroin seizures signal potential for increased use and harms — Large volumes of heroin are still being seized in the EU (7.9 tonnes in 2019), raising concerns around the possible impact on levels of use.
  • Organised crime groups intensify illegal drug production within Europe — A total of 370 illegal laboratories were dismantled in 2019.
  • Drug law offences increase, with cannabis possession and supply predominant — An estimated 1.5 million drug law offences were reported in the EU in 2019; 82% were related to use or possession for personal use.

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