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Please note that the information on this page is based on the EMCDDA Annual report 2011: the state of the drugs problem in Europe. Most statistical data relate to the year 2009 (or the last year available).


Annual report 2011: the state of the drugs problem in Europe
Responding to drug problems — an overview

Published: 15 November 2011

Drug law enforcement and drug law offences

Drug law enforcement is an important component of national and EU drug policies. It includes a wide range of interventions that are mainly implemented by police and police-like institutions (e.g. customs). One group of such interventions, undercover operations, are briefly reviewed here. Data on drug law enforcement activities are often less developed and accessible than those in other areas of drug policy. A notable exception to this rule is data on drug law offences, which are reported at the end of this section.

Undercover operations

The successful prosecution of high-level drug offenders and the dismantling of organised drug supply networks are key supply reduction priorities under the current EU drug action plan. This poses a challenge to law enforcement agencies, as most drug law offences will only be detected by means of proactive law enforcement operations (EMCDDA, 2009a). This is especially the case for serious offences involving intermediary and wholesale drug supply, which tend to be committed by highly secretive individuals and criminal organisations.

In their response to serious drug crime, European law enforcement institutions increasingly make use of undercover techniques, including both technology, such as wiretapping or electronic surveillance, and human undercover operations. These operations may involve police officers (undercover agents) and private individuals under police supervision (informants). Their deployment is legally admissible in all 27 EU Member States.

Undercover operations against drug trafficking networks are used to collect reliable information on the identity and roles of network members, detect smuggling routes, destinations and warehousing facilities, and discover the time and place of drug deliveries. Agents or informants often have to infiltrate criminal networks, which tend to be secretive towards outsiders and to compartmentalise information. Intelligence gathering is mainly focused on the functioning of drug networks and the roles of their members.

Undercover operations pose legal challenges, in particular around the subject of incitement. The European Court of Human Rights established basic principles regarding the use of 'agents provocateurs' in a 1998 judgement (Teixeira de Castro v. Portugal) (European Court of Human Rights, 1998). This states that the use of human undercover techniques should not infringe on the right to a fair trial, and therefore law enforcement agencies should not exert such an influence on a subject as to incite the commission of an offence that would otherwise not have been committed. Law enforcement agencies must, therefore, hold 'objective suspicions' on the targeted individuals before implementing undercover techniques. In most Member States, incitement of third parties to commit crime is prohibited.

National legal and administrative provisions govern undercover operations, and aim to ensure both compliance with the rule of law and the security of undercover agents. National laws and accompanying regulations differ, but tend to provide a general framework, which is specified in accompanying regulations that are rarely made public. Other information, such as the number of operations carried out each year, is also usually not available to the public. However, research has shown that 34 undercover operations were conducted in the Netherlands in 2004, and 12 of them contributed to investigations or trials (Kruisbergen et al., 2011).

In most EU Member States, approval from a judicial authority is required before launching an undercover operation and most operations require monitoring by a superior authority, typically the prosecutor or a court. Thirteen Member States specify the proportionality and subsidiarity rules, under which the intervention must be proportional to the investigated drug offence, which must be serious enough to warrant an undercover measure. In addition, before conducting an undercover operation, it must be clear that no other, less intrusive law enforcement measure would be as successful.

The use of operational cover, including false identity documents and 'front organisations' - created to provide plausible occupations and means of income for undercover agents - is legally admissible in most Member States.

A variety of techniques are used in undercover operations. For example, covert drug purchases are used primarily to arrest individuals in the act of selling illicit drugs. Controlled deliveries are a technique that allows the transport of illicit consignments, with the knowledge and under the supervision of the competent authorities, across and within national borders. The consignments may include drugs or precursors, weapons, cigarettes, money from illicit activities or even human beings. Most controlled deliveries in Europe involve drug consignments (Council of the European Union, 2009) and, depending on national law, they may be escorted by undercover agents or informants, or may be under technological surveillance (1).

Drug law offences

The only data on drug-related crime routinely available in Europe are initial reports on offences against national drug laws, mainly from the police (2). These data usually refer to offences related to drug use (use and possession for use) or drug supply (production, trafficking and dealing), although other types of offences may be reported (e.g. related to drug precursors) in some countries.

Data on drug law offences are a direct indicator of law enforcement activity, since they refer to consensual crimes, which usually go unreported by potential victims. They are often viewed as indirect indicators of drug use and drug trafficking, although they include only those activities that have come to the attention of law enforcement. Additionally, they are also likely to reflect national differences in legislation, priorities and resources. Furthermore, national information systems differ across Europe, especially in relation to recording and reporting practices. For these reasons, it is difficult to make robust comparisons between countries, and it is more appropriate to compare trends rather than absolute numbers.

Overall, the increase in the number of reported drug law offences observed in previous years slowed down in 2009. An EU index, based on data provided by 21 Member States, representing 95 % of the population aged 15-64 in the European Union, shows that reported offences increased by an estimated 21 % between 2004 and 2009. If all reporting countries are considered, the data reveal upward trends in 18 countries and a stabilisation or an overall decline in eleven countries over the period (3).

Use- and supply-related offences

There has been no major shift in the balance between drug law offences related to use and those related to supply compared to previous years. In most (22) European countries, offences related to drug use or possession for use continued to comprise the majority of drug law offences in 2009, with Estonia, Spain, France, Hungary, Austria and Sweden reporting the highest proportions (81-94 %) (4).

The increase in the number of use offences reported in previous years slowed down in 2009. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of drug law offences related to use increased in 15 reporting countries, with only Bulgaria, Germany, Estonia, Malta, Austria and Norway reporting a decline across the period. Overall, the number of drug law offences related to use in the European Union increased by an estimated 29 % between 2004 and 2009.

Offences related to the supply of drugs have remained stable since 2007, although they show an estimated increase during the period 2004-09 of about 7 % in the European Union. Over this period, 15 countries report an increase in supply-related offences, while three countries report an overall decline (5).

Trends by drug

Cannabis continues to be the illicit drug most often mentioned in reported drug law offences in Europe (6). In the majority of European countries, offences involving cannabis accounted for between 50 % and 75 % of reported drug law offences in 2009. Offences related to other drugs exceeded those related to cannabis in only three countries: the Czech Republic and Latvia with methamphetamine (55 % and 27 %), and Malta with cocaine (36 %).

In the period 2004-09, the number of drug law offences involving cannabis increased in 11 reporting countries, resulting in an estimated increase of 20 % in the European Union (Figure 4: Reports for offences related to drug use or possession for use and to drug supply in the EU Member States: indexed trends 2004-09 and breakdown by drug of reports for 2009). Downward trends are reported by France, Italy, Cyprus, Malta and the Netherlands (7).

Cocaine-related offences increased over the period 2004-09 in 11 reporting countries, while Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Austria and Croatia reported decreasing trends. In the European Union, overall, offences related to cocaine increased by about 39 % over the same period, but showed a levelling-off in the last two years (8).

The number of heroin-related offences slightly declined in 2009. The EU figure for such offences increased by 22 % over 2004-09. The number of heroin-related offences has increased in 11 reporting countries, while a decline was reported in Bulgaria, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands and Austria over the same period (9).

The number of offences related to amphetamines reported in the European Union slightly decreased in 2009, though the general trend since 2004 shows an overall estimated increase of 16 %. In contrast, the number of ecstasy-related offences halved over the same period (a 54 % decrease).


(1) For a discussion of the relationships between drugs and crime and a definition of 'drug-related crime', see EMCDDA (2007), Drugs and crime: a complex relationship, Drugs in focus, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg..

(2) See Figure DLO-1 and Table DLO-1 in the 2011 statistical bulletin.

(3) See Table DLO-2 in the 2011 statistical bulletin.

(4) See Figure DLO-1 and Table DLO-5 in the 2011 statistical bulletin.

(5) See Table DLO-3 in the 2011 statistical bulletin.

(6) See Figure DLO-3 and Table DLO-6 in the 2011 statistical bulletin.

(7) See Figure DLO-3 and Table DLO-8 in the 2011 statistical bulletin.

(8) See Figure DLO-3 and Table DLO-7 in the 2011 statistical bulletin.

Bibliographic references

EMCDDA (2009a), Annual report 2009: the state of the drug problem in Europe, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

European Court of Human Rights: Case of Teixeira de Castro v. Portugal, judgment of 9 June 1998, Reports 1998-VI, Par. 38 and 39.

Kruisbergen, E.W., De Jong, D. and Kleemans, E.R. (2011), 'Undercover policing: assumptions and empirical evidence', The British Journal of Criminology 51, pp. 394-412.

Council of the European Union (2009), Manual on cross-border operations, 10505/4/09 Rev. 4.

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Page last updated: Friday, 28 October 2011