Drug use in on the rise in Europe, and illegal substances are reaching higher levels of purity, according to the latest annual report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
According to analyst Andrew Cunningham, who co-authored the report, increased competition within the drug market is driving the demand for purer products.
"If you look at MDMA, for example, the level of purity of the product is increasing in response to the competition from new synthetic drugs that have taken over their slice of the market," he told VICE News.
Sewers Tainted With Cocaine
One in four Europeans over age 15 — an estimated 88 million people — have tried illegal drugs at least once in their lives, according to the report.
With nearly 84 million lifetime users, the drug of choice — by far — in Europe is cannabis. Next is cocaine, with an estimated 17.1 million lifetime users, followed by MDMA with 13 million lifetime users, and amphetamines with 12 million.
According to the survey, 1 percent of European adults smoke pot on a daily basis.
Europe's top nation of pot smokers is the Czech Republic, with an estimated 25 percent of young adults between 15 and 34 having smoked at least once in the last year. Second and third in line are France and Italy, where cannabis use has been on the rise for years. However, in Germany, Spain, and the UK, there has been a progressive decline in the number of cannabis users since 2000.
Cocaine use, the report notes, is higher in southern and western Europe. Spain, the Netherlands and the UK are Europe's top three cocaine-consuming nations for the 15-34 age group, although consumption in both Spain and the UK is in decline. In the UK, however, the decline was only observed in the 16-24 age range. In France, cocaine use is on the rise.
Analysis of wastewater from several European cities showed that sewers in Antwerp, Amsterdam and Barcelona have the highest concentration of cocaine. MDMA wastewater residue is highest in Amsterdam, followed by Antwerp and Oslo.
Synthetic Opioid Boom
Following a recent decline in use, MDMA — also known as molly or ecstasy — is gaining in popularity again, and an estimated 2.1 million European in the 15 to 34 age group took the stimulant at some point in the last year. Bulgaria, Finland, and France also continue to show "long-term upward trends," the report observes.
According to EMCDDA, amphetamine and methamphetamine use is also on the rise in a majority of the countries surveyed for the report. An estimated 1.3 million Europeans aged 15 to 34 consumed amphetamines during the last year.
While heroin use appears to have plateaued in Europe, synthetic opioids are being increasingly misused, which is causing major health challenges in Europe. More and more patients are being treated for opioid dependency, and are reporting addictions to methadone, buprenorphine, fentanyl, codeine, morphine, tramadol, and oxycodone.
Europe's Lucrative Drug Market
The market for illegal drugs in Europe is valued at between 21 and 31 billion euros ($23 billion and $34.5 billion). Cannabis is the most profitable substance for traffickers, accounting for an estimated 9.3 billion euro share of the market. It is followed by heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine. The least profitable drug in Europe today is MDMA.
According to the report, half of all reported drug seizures in 2014 involved cannabis, with a further 24 percent involving cannabis resin. Cannabis plants accounted for 3 percent of all seizures. Cocaine and crack account for only 9 percent of all reported drug seizures, followed by amphetamines, heroin and MDMA.
The lion's share of seizures (60 percent) took place in Spain and the UK, although it is important to note that several countries, including France, have ceased to make public their records on drug seizures.
Drug Seizures Across Europe:
Here's the latest drug seizure data compiled by the EMCDDA, with all seizures reported in 2014 except for the Netherlands, which shared data from 2012, and Finland and the UK, which both shared data from 2013.
- 21,683 kilos of heroin
- 62,120 kilos of cocaine
- 8,162 kilos of amphetamines
- 9,756,265 MDMA tablets
- 573,921 kilos of cannabis resin
- 139,286 kilos of herbal cannabis
- 3,396,333 cannabis plants
Ever-Evolving Drug Markets
Alongside herbal cannabis and resin, pot lovers can now buy other cannabis products, including oil. The opioid market has also evolved to meet new demand — heroin, for example, is purer and more widely available in Europe.
The market for cocaine remains relatively stable, and "the increase in the purity of cocaine seen in recent years has now leveled off," notes the report. The number of cocaine seizures since 2010 has also remained more or less stable, even showing a very slight decline.
For years, amphetamine-type drugs were more common in Europe than methamphetamine — a trend that appears to have reversed in recent years. A majority of Europe's meth is today cooked in the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, MDMA is experiencing something of a "revival," and tablets are reaching record purity levels. The introduction of "high-dose powders, crystals and tablets with a range of logos, colors and shapes" has helped market the drug to consumers, and revitalize production in the Netherlands and in Belgium.
Cunningham told VICE News that some traffickers have started marketing MDMA tablets to specific groups of festival goers, creating tablets adorned with festival logos. "We've seen this at Tomorrowland in Belgium and ADE in Amsterdam," he said. "In the past they used fashion brands, but now you can see specific events where they can target the users more effectively."
But extra purity does not appear to have driven prices up. For Cunningham — who remembers when a single dose of heroin retailed for 10 euros ($11) — the price of heroin has less to do with demand and more to do with the risk to the seller. "If the dose is sold for 11 euros [instead of 10], and the buyer has a 20-euro note, they're going to have to find change and that will draw attention."
New drugs, new challenges
Europe's drug users continue to have access to an ever-growing list of new psychoactive substances, including synthetic cannabinoids — drugs that mimic the effects of natural cannabis. Synthetic cannabinoids accounted for almost 61 percent of "new drug" seizures.
Also popular are synthetic cathinones — also known as "bath salts" — that are sold as "legal" substitutes for MDMA and cocaine.
These new drugs represent a new challenge for European health authorities. The report mentions one incident in 2015 in Poland, where 200 people had to be rushed to the ER in Poland in less than a week after consuming synthetic cannabinoids.
In 2014, an estimated 6,800 people died as a result of an overdose in Europe — up from 2013. A majority of fatal overdoses took place in Germany, the UK, and in Sweden.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Additional reporting by Matteo Civillini: @m_civillini
Image via European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)