Drug sales and violence up in EU, report finds

According to the European Union's narcotics monitor, the EU drug market is growing more diverse and health risks are increasing

Representative image (photo: DW)
Representative image (photo: DW)


The availability of illicit drugs within the EU remains high, challenging the bloc's narcotics regulation and health care policies, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has found.

In an extensive report released on Friday, the Portugal-based EMCDDA found that people are being exposed "to a wider range of psychoactive substances" within the European Union.

According to the report, the largest increases in drugs seized within the European Union from 2011 to 2021 were cocaine (416%), herbal cannabis (260%), methamphetamine (135%), heroin (126%), MDMA (ecstasy) (123%), cannabis resin (77%) and amphetamine (42%).

The report found that, though there is demand for these drugs within the EU, "it is likely that increases in quantities seized reflect, at least partially, the larger role played by Europe as a place of production, export and transit for these drugs."

"Almost everything with psychoactive properties can appear on the drug market, often mislabelled or in mixtures. This is why illicit drugs can affect everyone, whether directly through use, or indirectly, through their impact on families, communities, institutions and businesses," EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel said in a statement.

In a joint written response to DW, Teodora Groshkova, principal scientific analyst at EMCDDA and Gregorio Planchuelo, database management development officer at EMCDDA, said that the drug situation is highly complex and constantly evolving.

"While western and southern Europe remain the main markets for cocaine, there are signs of cocaine consumption becoming increasingly more common in cities in eastern Europe — indicating that the cocaine retail market is also developing in other regions. In terms of high-risk opioid use, the countries with the highest number of users per 1 000 inhabitants are Italy, Austria, France, Greece, Spain and Germany," they wrote.

'A major threat'

According to the report, increased trafficking to the European Union has also led to more drug-related violence.

On January 10, an 11-year-old girl was killed in a drug-related shooting in the Belgian port of Antwerp. On the same day, Belgian authorities revealed that they had seized a record 110 tons of cocaine in Antwerp in 2022, compared with 91 tons in 2021. Antwerp has been dubbed Europe's cocaine capital.

Across the border, in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, 52.5 tons of cocaine were intercepted in 2022, a decline from 77 tons in 2021.

According to the EMCDDA, cocaine manufacturing in the European Union is also increasing, with 34 laboratories dismantled in 2021, compared with 23 in 2020.

Moreover, organized crime groups are increasingly targeting smaller ports in other EU nations as well as in countries bordering the European Union, the report found.

"Drug-related organized crime poses a major threat to society, and I am deeply concerned that the substances consumed in Europe today may be even more damaging to health than in the past," Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, said in a statement.

Johansson said her recent visits to EU ports, and Latin America, demonstrated that traffickers "continue to infiltrate supply chains, exploiting workers and negatively impacting communities through violence and corruption."

"It is crucial that the EU cooperates with third countries in the global fight against drug trafficking," Johansson said.

In addition to cocaine, drugs such as heroin and synthetic opioids are being trafficked into the European Union. Most of the heroin consumed in Europe comes from Afghanistan, where the Taliban has announced a ban on poppy cultivation, which could affect the international heroin supply.

The report warns that this ban could increase the demand for synthetic opioids within the European Union.

Changing trafficking patterns

Russia's war in Ukraine has also had an impact on drug trafficking routes to the European Union, with deliveries via the Caucuses and Black Sea regions decreasing.

The EMCDDA found that the war has made it harder for EU nations and Ukrainian authorities to continue to help people in "opioid agonist treatment" — a type of therapy involving the slow release of oral morphine — and monitor the supply and emergence of illicit drugs in Ukraine, posing increased health risks.

The report found that cocaine poisoning increased in EU hospitals in 2022, with people injecting themselves with the drug alone or in combination with heroin.

New cannabis products such as hexahydrocannabinol have also posed significant health risks.

Recreational use of ketamine, which is administered medically as a painkiller, has increased, leading to health problems such as bladder damage.

Powders and tablets made from MDMA, widely known as ecstasy, and psychedelic drugs also pose health risks. The report also found an increase in the use of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, that is inhaled. Nitrous oxide has made young people vulnerable to lung injuries and, in extreme cases, nerve damage, according to the report.

Overall, the EMCDDA's Groshkova and Planchuelo noted that globalization and digitalization are the main factors driving supply. "Criminal networks are quick to exploit the expansion of global trade, which provides more opportunities for transporting and concealing drug shipments. For example, they have adopted new methods for drug trafficking, such as using intermodal transportation networks and general aviation, as well as exploiting rapid parcel and postal delivery services for drug delivery."

EU drug policies

To regulate the trafficking of illicit drugs and address health risks, EU nations have begun to revamp their policies.

Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Malta, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland are trying to introduce new regulations for the supply of cannabis, which is permitted for recreational purposes in some EU countries. These regulations involve robust monitoring of supply chains and tougher drug trafficking laws.

Earlier this week, EU lawmakers voted to set up an agency to act as the bloc's "warning system" by monitoring the increase in the use of illicit drugs and also develop health and security assessments.

"In a particularly challenging time, in which health and social problems must be at the core of our action, the European Union delivers. Today's vote on the EU Drugs Agency is a step in the right direction, towards a balanced, integrated, multidisciplinary and evidence-based approach to the drugs phenomenon, enriched by an active engagement with civil society," the Portuguese MEP Isabel Santos, a member of the parliament's Socialists and Democrats bloc, said.

The EMCDDA has also recommended investing further in "forensic and toxicological information sources which have become essential elements for understanding developments both in the drug market and on the health implications of changing patterns of drug consumption."

Edited by: Milan Gagnon; Rob Mudge

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