EU drug markets report .

New worrying trends in smuggling and consumption


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EU report unveils new worrying trends in smuggling and consumption

Europe is entering an important new era in the supply and demand for illicit drugs — a development which is challenging current policies and responses. This is according to the first joint EU drug markets report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol released today in Brussels. The two EU agencies have joined forces to provide the first strategic analysis of the European illicit drug market in its entirety.

In the report, they describe a market which is increasingly dynamic, innovative and quick to react to challenges and one which requires an equally dynamic, innovative and agile response across Europe. The report unveils the ‘changing face of organised crime in Europe’: while, historically, the EU drug market has focused on specific drugs trafficked by specialised operators along well-defined routes, the contemporary market is more ‘fluid’, with new routes and multi-substance consignments becoming more common.

“This timely report shows the increasingly joined-up nature of the modern European drug market, one of the most complex and invasive criminal phenomena of our times. Organised crime groups are now more likely to deal in many substances at once and are more likely to join forces. Drug trafficking is also diversifying, both in terms of the complexity of the routes chosen and the drug types moved along them. This all calls for increased cooperation at EU level. National measures are simply insufficient, no matter how robust they are. By combining insights from the EMCDDA’s monitoring of Europe’s drug phenomenon with Europol’s operational understanding of trends in organised crime, the analysis offered by this report is unique”, said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, presenting the findings today.

Europol Director Rob Wainwright explains: “International drug trafficking remains the principal activity of most organised crime groups. They are adapting to new criminal opportunities and changing smuggling methods and routes to evade law enforcement, and we have noticed an increase in the exploitation of legitimate commercial transportation options, such as containers, aircraft, couriers and postal services. This allows drugs to be moved through multiple transit points making them harder to intercept. Internet technology has also emerged as an important facilitator and is commonly used in the marketing and sale of drugs”.

Also detailed in the report is Europe’s role as a key global source of the precursor chemical used to manufacture heroin (acetic anhydride) and as an important player in the packaging, marketing and promotion of products containing new psychoactive substances.

For synthetic drugs, and increasingly cannabis, the EU remains an important drug-producing region“, notes EMCDDA Director Wolfgang Götz. “The trend for producing illicit drugs close to their intended consumer markets, where they are less likely to be intercepted, is a growing one. We are now paying an increasing cost for this development in terms of community safety, public health and the burden placed on already stretched police resources“.

According to the report, globalisation is an important driver of developments, with more countries now used as transit, storage or production points. Furthermore, the Internet is having a profound impact, both as communication tool and online marketplace. But innovation is also seen in the area of production: the EU is cited as a key ‘source of expertise and know how’ regarding intensive cannabis cultivation, synthetic drug production and cocaine concealment.

Other findings of the report include the connections between cocaine and cannabis resin trafficking networks, the increasing importance of Africa as a transit and storage area, and how crime gangs based in North-West Europe play a pivotal role in the distribution of virtually all types of drug across the EU. Among the action points proposed are that law-enforcement actors, to a larger extent, should prioritise intelligence gathering on high-value individuals and high-profile criminal groups. Also, the speed of developments in the area of synthetic drugs means that Europe needs to scale up its early-warning capacity for new substances on the market.

Drug trafficking is a highly profitable commercial activity and a core business for organised crime groups across Europe today. Understanding the reality of the European drug market requires a holistic approach, following the economic chain from production, via trafficking, to consumption. In today’s EU drug markets report, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol have joined forces to provide the first state-of-the-art overview of this market in its entirety. Describing how Europe is entering a new phase regarding the supply and demand for drugs, the agencies identify key action points to inform future policies (see Chapter 10 of the report and a selection below). Chapters on specific drugs begin with key statistics ‘at a glance’ and end with EU policy responses and operational and international initiatives.

1. Drivers of change

The changing face of organised crime

The report describes the changing face of organised crime in Europe and a more ‘polymorphous, dynamic and fluid’ market. Contributing factors to this change include: criminals’ multi-commodity perspective; the diversification of trafficking; and the exploitation of legitimate transportation options (e.g. containers, couriers, postal services).

Action points: coordinate targeted, intelligence-led law-enforcement actions focusing on ‘high-value’ criminals and groups; interrupt criminal money flows; forge partnerships with industry to tackle the misuse of commercial channels for drug trafficking.

The impact of global developments on the European drug market

It is impossible to understand the European drug market without locating it within a global context. The report explores: the changing global marketplace (demand for drugs in the developing world); the role of Africa (transit, storage) and the need for cooperation between EU and non-EU countries. The EU is also a major drug producer, and criminal gangs in North-West Europe play a pivotal role in intra-European trafficking.

Action points: boost positive engagement with a larger number of producer and transit countries; improve analysis of supply and demand trends outside the EU; focus on Africa; continue to target drug production in the EU and to suppress trafficking of drugs and precursor chemicals from the region.

Technology and innovation

Technology is a ‘significant game-changer’ in the trafficking, production and distribution of drugs, with the Internet having a profound impact as communication tool and marketplace. But innovation is also seen in the area of production (EU as a key ‘source of expertise and know how’ on cannabis cultivation, synthetic drug production).

Action points: improve knowledge of the online drug market; create barriers to Internet sales via partnerships with credit card companies and online payment providers.

2. Drugs in perspective


Europe’s heroin problem has its roots largely in the 1990s and is characterised today by a relatively small and ageing population of users. While heroin use continues to be responsible for severe health and social problems, recent data suggest that use of the drug in the EU is in decline. Here vigorous policing along the heroin routes bordering the EU, and the success of Member States in engaging those with heroin problems in effective drug treatment programmes, are both likely to have played a significant role. The European heroin market therefore appears less important today in global terms, with non-EU heroin markets now larger and easier to penetrate. Turkey still plays a central role in heroin trafficking along the Balkan route, but there are signs of new routes being used as organised criminals respond to interdiction successes (e.g. Western Balkans). Organised crime groups linked to heroin now appear more active in markets for other drugs (e.g. cocaine). A specific risk highlighted is the potential diversification of heroin networks into methamphetamine production and trafficking. Europe remains a key source of the heroin precursor acetic anhydride.

Action points: invest in intelligence-led operations along classical heroin trafficking routes; build strategic partnerships with non-EU countries (e.g. in Africa); ensure joined-up law-enforcement against a joined-up threat (interaction between markets).


Over the last decade, cocaine has established itself as the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe, yet most users are found in a small number of western EU countries. Although demand for the drug remains high, indicators of cocaine use at EU level peaked around 2008 and have since fallen slightly. Spain and Portugal are the main points of entry for cocaine into Europe (with trafficking through West Africa a particular concern). New routes are also emerging. Cocaine concealed in container shipments is becoming more common, and recent major seizures have been made in the Black Sea and Eastern Baltic Sea areas. Interaction between cocaine and cannabis resin trafficking networks is well established, but interaction is also being seen between cocaine and heroin traffickers. To avoid detection, traffickers use sophisticated chemical techniques to incorporate cocaine into legitimate products (e.g. clothing, plastics). Most of the cocaine laboratories dismantled in the EU are ‘secondary extraction labs’ used to remove cocaine from materials in which it has been incorporated before exportation to Europe.

Action points: assess new threats (Black Sea; Balkan areas); focus on containers and develop partnerships between customs, port authorities and commercial transport bodies; support precursor control in producer countries.


The diversity and sophistication of cannabis products, producers and sources, and the sheer scale of demand for the drug, makes it relatively resilient to interdiction efforts. Herbal cannabis production is now widespread throughout the EU, a shift that has been accompanied by developments in cultivation technologies that may result in increased yield and potency. Being cultivated close to the intended consumer market, domestically grown herbal cannabis is more difficult to intercept and poses a new challenge for law enforcement. Trafficking of cannabis resin, principally from Morocco, remains a key concern and is sometimes linked to the importation of other illegal cargoes.

Action points: share know-how between countries on domestic cannabis production and improve monitoring of yields and potency; act in key areas (Morocco; S-E Europe).

Synthetic drugs (amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy)*

Recent developments in the synthetic drug market include a bounce-back of ecstasy (MDMA) availability; increased availability of methamphetamine; greater technical sophistication; and evidence of a scaling-up of production processes. There is increasing evidence of synthetic substances being used as replacements for both heroin and cocaine and signs of more interplay with the market for non-controlled new psychoactive substances. Ecstasy use over the medium term has stabilised or even declined, due in large part to successful enforcement. The increased availability of MDMA in tablets, and now powders, may, however, see renewed interest in this drug. Demand for synthetic drugs in Europe is met largely by laboratories located intraregionally, particularly in the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Belgium, Poland and Lithuania. However, trafficking in precursors (and pre-precursors) occurs on a global basis, and producers are proving versatile in finding new production methods. The EU remains an important exporter of amphetamine and ecstasy.

Action points: target the intra-regional production of synthetic drugs through coordinated law-enforcement actions; identify key producers; restrict access to precursor chemicals; strengthen the international framework for restricting new precursors and pre-precursors.

New psychoactive substances*

New psychoactive substances (new drugs) comprise a broad range of substances that are not controlled by international drug laws. In recent years, there has been a dramatic growth in their number, type and availability. Much of the policy focus on new drugs has concerned their legal status. However, it is also important to see them in the context of the overall drug market (interplay between the ‘legal high’ and illicit drug market). New drugs are usually synthesised outside the EU, while EU-based ’entrepreneurs’, operating in a grey area, play an important role in importing, packaging and marketing. The report stresses the challenge of identifying new drugs which belong to diverse chemical groups, emerge rapidly and are sold in products that may contain mixtures of substances that change over time (meaning that users are exposed to substances of unknown toxicity). The Internet is a source of supply and information to consumers, traders and producers.

Action points: strengthen the EU early-warning mechanism on new drugs to keep pace with challenges; boost forensic capacity to improve detection; keep up-to-speed with new Internet trends; respond to the interplay between the ‘legal highs’ and illicit drug market; take rapid action to protect public health via fast-track EU-wide alerts.

* Case studies on these issues

3. Information needs

Understanding a complex phenomenon such as the drug market requires sound analysis informed by data on both supply and demand. Improving the measurement of drug markets and the effectiveness of supply reduction responses demands that data be based on common definitions and standards. The report highlights the strategic and operational importance of forensic information, and the value of operational intelligence (when used with safeguards) to enrich statistical analysis. Monitoring, analysis and assessment are essential tools for ensuring that strategies and responses remain fit for purpose.

Action points: develop standardised key indicators of drug supply; scale up and share forensic science information; develop models to quantify the drug market.

Link to the report:<EU drug markets report — a strategic analysis

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