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European Drug Report 2015: drug supply and the market

 

CHAPTER 1
Drug supply and the market

Europe is an important market for drugs, supported by both domestic production and drugs trafficked from other regions

In the global context, Europe is an important market for drugs, supported by both domestic production and drugs trafficked from other regions. Latin America, West Asia and North Africa are important source areas for drugs entering Europe, and some drugs and precursors are transited through Europe en route to other continents. Europe is also a producing region for cannabis and synthetic drugs, with cannabis mostly being produced for local consumption, while some of the synthetic drugs are being manufactured for export to other parts of the world.

Monitoring drug markets, supply and laws

The analysis presented in this chapter draws on reported data on drug seizures, dismantled drug production facilities, drug law offences, retail drug prices, purity and potency. In some areas, the absence of seizure data from some countries makes the analysis of trends difficult. Full data sets and methodological notes can be found in the online Statistical Bulletin. It should be noted that trends can be influenced by a range of factors which include law enforcement activity levels and the effectiveness of interdiction measures.

Also presented here are data on seizures of new psychoactive substances reported to the EU Early Warning System by the national partners of the EMCDDA and Europol. As this information is drawn from case reports rather than routine monitoring systems, these seizure estimates represent a minimum. Data will be influenced by factors such as increasing awareness of these substances, their changing legal status and the reporting practices of law enforcement agencies. A full description of the Early Warning System can be found on the EMCDDA website under Action on new drugs.

Comprehensive data on European drug laws is available in the online European Legal Database on Drugs. The implementation of these laws is monitored through reports on drug law offences.

Sizeable markets for cannabis, heroin and amphetamines have existed in many European countries since the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, other substances also established themselves — including MDMA in the 1990s and cocaine in the 2000s. The market continues to evolve, with the last decade witnessing the emergence of a wide range of new psychoactive substances. The nature of the illicit drug market has also been changing as a result of globalisation, technology and the Internet. Additional challenges are presented by innovation in drug production and trafficking methods and the establishment of new trafficking routes.

Measures aimed at preventing the supply of drugs involve many players in government and law enforcement and often depend on international cooperation. The stance that countries take is also reflected in their national drug laws. Data on arrests and seizures are the most welldocumented indicators of drug-supply disruption efforts.

Cannabis is the most commonly seized drug, accounting for about eight out of ten seizures in Europe

FIGURE 1.1

Proportion of reported number of seizures for the main illicit drugs, 2013

 

Drug seizures in Europe: dominated by cannabis

Around one million seizures of illicit drugs are reported annually in Europe. Most of these are small quantities of drugs confiscated from users, although multi-kilogram consignments seized from traffickers and producers account for a large proportion of the overall quantity of drugs seized.

Cannabis is the most commonly seized drug, accounting for about eight out of ten seizures in Europe (Figure 1.1), and reflecting its relatively high prevalence of use. Cocaine ranks second overall, with more than double the number of seizures reported for either amphetamines or heroin. The number of ecstasy seizures is relatively low.

In 2013, about two-thirds of all seizures in the European Union were reported by just two countries, Spain and the United Kingdom, although considerable numbers of seizures were also reported by Belgium, Germany, Italy and four Nordic countries. It should also be noted that recent data on the number of seizures are not available for France and the Netherlands — countries that reported large numbers of seizures in the past — and Poland. The absence of these data adds uncertainty to the analysis reported here. In addition, Turkey is an important country for drug seizures, with some of the drugs intercepted there being intended for consumption in other countries, both in Europe and in the Middle East.

Data are also presented here on the growing number of seizures of new psychoactive substances reported to the EU Early Warning System. In 2013, about 35 000 seizures were reported, primarily synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones (Figure 1.2). This should be regarded as a minimum estimate due to the lack of routine reporting in this area. It should be noted that these data are not directly comparable with the data on established drugs such as cannabis.

FIGURE 1.2: Number of seizures of new psychoactive substances reported to the EU Early Warning System

Breakdown by main substance category of seizures in 2013

 

Trends

 

Cannabis products: a diverse market

Two main cannabis products are found on the European drugs market: herbal cannabis (marijuana) and cannabis resin (hashish). Herbal cannabis consumed in Europe is both cultivated domestically and trafficked from external countries. Most cannabis resin is imported by sea or by air from Morocco.

The number of seizures of herbal cannabis overtook that of cannabis resin in Europe in 2009, and the gap has continued to widen (Figure 1.3). This is probably driven, to a large extent, by the growing availability of domestically produced herbal cannabis in many European countries and is mirrored in increasing seizures of cannabis plants.

Nevertheless, the quantity of cannabis resin seized in the European Union is still much higher than that of herbal cannabis (460 tonnes versus 130 tonnes). This is, in part, explained by the fact that cannabis resin is trafficked in volume over large distances and across national borders, making it more vulnerable to interdiction.

The recent emergence of synthetic cannabinoid products has added a new dimension to the cannabis market. Over 130 different synthetic cannabinoids have been detected in recent years. Most of these substances appear to be manufactured in China. After being shipped in powder form to Europe, the chemicals are typically added to plant material and packaged for sale as ‘legal high’ products.

In 2013, 671 000 seizures of cannabis were reported in the European Union (431 000 of herbal cannabis, 240 000 of cannabis resin). There were a further 30 000 seizures of cannabis plants. In addition, over 10 000 seizures of synthetic cannabinoids were reported by EU countries to the Early Warning System in 2013, rising sharply from 2011 levels and a further 11 000 seizures were reported by Turkey (see Figure 1.4).

FIGURE 1.3 Trends in number of cannabis seizures and quantity seized

Resin, number of seizures

 

Resin, quantity seized (kilograms)

 

Herb, number of seizures

 

Herb, quantity seized (kilograms)

 

In the analysis of the quantity of cannabis seized, a small number of countries are disproportionately important due to their location on major cannabis trafficking routes. Spain, for example, as a major point of entry for cannabis produced in Morocco, reported more than two-thirds of the total quantity of cannabis resin seized in Europe in 2013 (Figure 1.5). In respect to herbal cannabis, recent large increases have been reported in Greece, Spain and Italy. In recent years, Turkey has been seizing larger quantities of herbal cannabis than any other European country, and the amount reported in 2013 (180 tonnes) was more than all the EU Member States combined.

Seizures of cannabis plants may be regarded as an indicator of the production of the drug within a country. Methodological problems mean that data on cannabis plant seizures must be considered with caution, nevertheless the number of plants seized increased from 1.5 million in 2002 to 3.7 million in 2013.

FIGURE 1.4 Seizures of synthetic cannabinoids reported to the EU Early Warning System

Number of seizures

 

Quantity seized

 

Analysis of indexed trends among those countries reporting consistently show a large increase in the potency (level of tetrahydrocannabinol, THC) of both herbal cannabis and cannabis resin between 2006 and 2013. Drivers of this increasing potency may include the introduction of intensive production techniques within Europe and, more recently, the introduction of high potency plants in Morocco.

Indexed trends for cannabis-related drug law offences in the European Union also show marked increases between 2006 and 2013.

CANNABIS

cannabis seizures infographic

FIGURE 1.5 Seizures of cannabis resin and herbal cannabis, 2013

 
 
 
 

Opioids: a changing market?

Heroin is the most common opioid on the European drug market. Imported heroin has historically been available in Europe in two forms: the more common of these is brown heroin (its chemical base form), originating mainly from Afghanistan. Far less common is white heroin (a salt form), which historically came from South-East Asia, but now may also be produced in Afghanistan or in neighbouring countries. Other opioids seized by law enforcement agencies in European countries in 2013 included opium and the medicinal products morphine, methadone, buprenorphine, fentanyl and tramadol. Some medicinal opioids may have been diverted from pharmaceutical supplies, while others are manufactured specifically for the illicit market. Worryingly, 14 new synthetic opioids have been reported to the EU Early Warning System since 2005, among which are several highly potent uncontrolled fentanyls.

Afghanistan remains the world’s largest illicit producer of opium, and most heroin found in Europe is thought to be manufactured there or in neighbouring Iran or Pakistan. There are signs that the final stages of heroin manufacturing may now be carried out in Europe, as indicated by the discovery of two laboratories converting morphine into heroin in Spain in 2013–14. Historically, reports of illicit opioid drugs originating in Europe have been limited to the production of homemade poppy products in parts of eastern Europe.

Heroin enters Europe along four trafficking routes. The two most important are the ‘Balkan route’ and the ‘southern route’. The first of these runs through Turkey, into Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Romania or Albania) and on to central, southern and western Europe. Heroin shipments from Iran and Pakistan may also enter Europe by air or sea, either directly or transiting through west, southern and east African countries. The southern route seems to have gained importance in recent years.

Europe has seen a considerable decline in heroin seizures from 2010 onwards, following almost a decade of relative stability. Both the number of heroin seizures (32 000) and the quantity seized in 2013 (5.6 tonnes) are among the lowest levels reported in the last decade. Declining seizures in the European Union have coincided with the increasing importance of seizures in Turkey (13.5 tonnes in 2013) where, in each year since 2006, more heroin has been seized than in all EU countries combined (Figure 1.6).

Alongside recent declines in the number of heroin seizures, decreases were also observed in indexed trends for price and supply offences (see heroin infographic).

FIGURE 1.6 Number of heroin seizures and quantity seized

Number of seizures, trends

 

Quantity seized, trends

 

Number of seizures, 2013

 

Quantity seized, 2013

 

Markets in a number of countries experienced heroin shortages in 2010/11, from which few appear to have fully recovered. Nonetheless, among those countries reporting consistently, indexed trends suggest that heroin purity increased in Europe in 2013; and some countries have expressed concern about possible increased availability. In Turkey, the number of seizures rose in 2013 and the quantity seized continued to increase from 2012 levels. In addition the United Nations reports a substantial increase in opium production in Afghanistan. Taken together, there are signals suggesting there is potential for the availability of this drug to increase.

HEROIN

heroin seizures infographic

Cocaine: stable seizures and increased purity

In Europe, cocaine is available in two forms, the most common of which is cocaine powder (a hydrochloride salt, HCl). Less commonly available is crack cocaine, a smokeable (free base) form of the drug. Cocaine is produced from the leaves of the coca bush. The drug is produced almost exclusively in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, and is transported to Europe by both air and sea routes. The available data indicate that trafficking of cocaine into Europe mainly takes place through western and southern countries, with Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Italy together accounting for 86 % of the 62.6 tonnes seized in 2013 (Figure 1.7).

In 2013, about 78 000 seizures of cocaine were reported in the European Union, amounting to 63 tonnes of the drug. The situation has been relatively stable since 2010, although both the number of seizures and the volume seized are at levels considerably lower than the peak values reached in 2006 and 2008 (Figure 1.7). While Spain continues to be the country seizing the most cocaine in Europe, there are signs of the ongoing diversification of trafficking routes into Europe, with seizures of the drug recently reported in ports on the eastern Mediterranean, Baltic and Black Seas. Overall, indexed trends suggest that the purity of cocaine has increased in recent years, while the price has remained relatively stable. Indexed trends for cocaine-related offences show an increase since 2006.

COCAINE

FIGURE 1.7 Number of cocaine seizures and quantity seized

Number of seizures, trends

 

Quantity seized, trends

 

Number of seizures, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

Quantity seized, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

Amphetamines: increased amphetamine and methamphetamine seizures

Amphetamine and methamphetamine are closely related synthetic stimulants, generically known as amphetamines, and these are difficult to differentiate in some datasets. Of the two, amphetamine has always been the more common in Europe, but recent years have seen increasing reports of the availability of methamphetamine on the market.

Both drugs are manufactured in Europe for domestic use, although some amphetamine and methamphetamine is also manufactured for export, principally to the Middle East and the Far East, respectively. Europe is also a transit hub for methamphetamine being trafficked from Africa and Iran to the Far East. Data available indicate that amphetamine production mainly takes place in Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and the Baltic States and, to a lesser extent, in Germany, while methamphetamine production is concentrated in the Baltic States and central Europe.

The production of methamphetamine in Europe appears to be changing, partly driven by the availability of precursors. Methamphetamine production using BMK (benzyl methyl ketone) as a principal precursor is centred on Lithuania; the drug is exported mainly to northern European countries, where it has impacted on the amphetamine market. This can be seen in the relatively high seizures reported in Norway. Production based on ephedrine and pseudoephedrine is centred on the Czech Republic, although some is also occurring in Slovakia and now Germany. Historically, in the Czech Republic, methamphetamine has mainly been produced in smallscale facilities by users for their own or local use. This is reflected in the high number of production sites detected in this country (261 dismantled in 2013, out of a total of 294 in Europe). Recently, however, signs of larger-scale production have emerged, with reports of Vietnamese organised crime groups producing large volumes of this drug for both domestic and external markets.

In 2013, 34 000 seizures of amphetamine were reported by EU Member States, amounting to 6.7 tonnes. More than half of the total quantity of amphetamine seized was accounted for by Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. After a period of relative stability, there was an increase in the quantity of amphetamine seized in 2013 (Figure 1.8). Methamphetamine seizures are far lower, accounting for around a sixth of all amphetamines seizures in 2013, with 7 000 seizures reported in the European Union, amounting to 0.5 tonnes (Figure 1.9). There have been increasing trends for both number and quantity of methamphetamine seized since 2002.

Typically, the average reported purity is higher for methamphetamine than for amphetamine samples. And although indexed trends, among those countries reporting consistently, suggest that amphetamine purity has increased in the latest data, the average purity of this drug continues to be relatively low.

AMPHETAMINES

infographic about amphetamines seizures

FIGURE 1.8 Number of amphetamine seizures and quantity seized

Number of seizures, trends

 

Quantity seized, trends

 

Number of seizures, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

Quantity seized, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

FIGURE 1.9 Number of methamphetamine seizures and quantity seized

Number of seizures, trends

 

Quantity seized, trends

 

Number of seizures, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

Quantity seized, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

MDMA/ecstasy: increase in high-purity products

The synthetic substance MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is chemically related to amphetamines, but differs to some extent in its effects. Ecstasy tablets have historically been the main MDMA product on the market, although they may often contain a range of MDMA-like substances and unrelated chemicals. After a period when reports suggested that the majority of tablets sold as ecstasy in Europe contained low doses of MDMA or none at all, recent evidence indicates that this may be changing. New data suggest an increased availability both of high-content MDMA tablets and of MDMA in powder and crystal form.

Production of MDMA in Europe appears to be concentrated around the Netherlands and Belgium, the countries that have historically reported the largest numbers of production sites for the drug. After evidence of a decline in MDMA production at the end of the last decade, there have been signs of a resurgence, illustrated by reports of large-scale production facilities recently dismantled in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Assessing recent trends in MDMA seizures is difficult due to the absence of data from some countries that are likely to make important contributions to this total. For 2013, no data are available from the Netherlands and the number of seizures is not available from France and Poland. The Netherlands reported seizing 2.4 million MDMA tablets in 2012, and if a similar figure may be assumed for 2013, it can be estimated that 4.8 million MDMA tablets were seized in the European Union in that year. This would be roughly double the amount seized in 2009. Of note, the quantity of MDMA now seized in Turkey (4.4 million MDMA tablets) is equal to the total seized in all EU Member States (Figure 1.10). This raises questions as to whether these drugs were intended for domestic use or for export to the European Union or elsewhere.

A recent upturn is also evident in indexed trends of MDMA-related offences. Among those countries reporting consistently, indexed trends also point to increases in MDMA-content since 2010, and the availability of high MDMA-content products has prompted joint alerts from Europol and the EMCDDA in 2014. Taken together, these indicators of the MDMA market all point to recovery from a low reached about 5 years ago.

ECSTASY

FIGURE 1.10 Numbers of MDMA seizures and tablets seized

Number of seizures, trends

 

Quantity seized, trends

 

Number of seizures, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

Quantity seized, 2013 (or most recent year)

 

New stimulants on the illicit market

First introduced as new psychoactive substances, not controlled under drug laws, synthetic cathinones such as mephedrone, pentedrone and MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone) have become a fixture on the illicit drug market in some European countries. Cathinones are used in similar ways to, and often interchangeably with, other stimulants such as amphetamine and MDMA. Most often they are available as powders or tablets. Production of cathinones appears to take place primarily in China and India. The drugs are then imported into Europe, where they are packaged and marketed as ‘legal highs’ or sold in the illicit market. The Early Warning System has identified more than 70 new cathinones in Europe. In 2013, over 10 000 seizures of synthetic cathinones were reported to the Early Warning System (Figure 1.11).

Cathinones are used in similar ways to, and often interchangeably with, other stimulants such as amphetamine and MDMA

FIGURE 1.11 Seizures of synthetic cathinones reported to the EU Early Warning System

Number of seizures

 

Quantity seized

 

New psychoactive substances: a marketplace of increasing diversity

The availability of new psychoactive substances on Europe’s drug market has rapidly increased over the last decade, as evidenced by growing numbers of seizures reported to both the Early Warning System and through standard monitoring mechanisms. These new drugs include substances, synthetic and naturally occurring, that are not controlled under international law, and are often produced with the intention of mimicking the effects of controlled substances. Typically, chemicals are imported from suppliers outside Europe, and then prepared, packaged and marketed in Europe. Increasingly, however, new drugs are produced in Europe in clandestine laboratories and sold directly on the market.

To avoid controls, products are often mislabelled, for example as ‘research chemicals’, with disclaimers that state the product is not intended for human consumption. These substances are marketed through online retailers and specialised shops, and increasingly they are offered through the same channels used for the supply of illicit substances. This market, as well as its relationship to the illicit market, is a dynamic one, characterised by the continual introduction of new products and control measures. Synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones are the groups of new psychoactive substances most commonly seized, reflecting the relatively high demand of cannabis and stimulants on the illicit drug market.

In addition to the increasing number of seizures of new drugs reported each year in Europe, the number of new substances detected continues to grow. In 2014, Member States notified the EU Early Warning System of 101 new psychoactive substances not previously reported. This represented an increase of 25 % compared with 2013 (Figure 1.12). Thirty-one of these substances are synthetic cathinones, making this the largest category of new drugs identified in Europe in 2014, followed by 30 synthetic cannabinoids. However, another 13 compounds do not fit easily into any of the substance groups that are monitored. Four of the new psychoactive substances notified in 2014 are used as active substances in medicines. The EU Early Warning System is currently monitoring more than 450 new psychoactive substances.

In 2014, Member States notified the EU Early Warning System of 101 new psychoactive substances not previously reported

FIGURE 1.12

Number and categories of new psychoactive substances notified to the EU Early Warning System

 

New substances risk-assessed in Europe in 2014

An EU mechanism exists for the identification, assessment and possible control of new psychoactive substances in Europe. In 2014, six new psychoactive substances were risk-assessed (see Table 1.1). These new drugs emerged in Europe in the past few years and have been linked to growing numbers of reports of harm, including hospitalisations and deaths. As of February 2015, four of the six substances have since been subjected to control measures throughout Europe.

In 2014, six new psychoactive substances were risk-assessed

TABLE 1.1 New psychoactive substances risk-assessed in 2014

In September 2014, European-level risk assessments were conducted on 4,4′-DMAR and MT-45. These add to the four risk assessments conducted in April 2014 on 25I-NBOMe (a substituted phenethylamine with hallucinogenic effects, sold as a ‘legal’ alternative to LSD), AH-7921 (a synthetic opioid), MDPV (a synthetic cathinone derivative) and methoxetamine (an arylcyclohexylamine closely related to ketamine, marketed as its ‘legal’ alternative).
4,4′-DMAR is a psycho-stimulant which has been available on the EU drug market since at least December 2012 and detected in nine Member States. In about 20 % of detections 4,4′-DMAR was found in combination with other drugs (predominantly stimulants). It has been detected in 31 deaths in Hungary, Poland and the United Kingdom, over a 12-month period.
MT-45 is a synthetic opioid, with analgesic potency similar to morphine, first detected in October 2013. It has been detected in 28 deaths, and 12 non-fatal intoxications in Sweden, over a nine-month period. In 19 of the deaths, MT-45 was either reported as the cause of death or contributing to death.

Legal responses to evolving drug markets

The rapid emergence of new psychoactive substances and the diversity of available products has proved challenging for Europe’s policymakers. At EU level, a surveillance system linked with a legal mechanism for control has existed since 1997 — the EU Early Warning System. This was strengthened in 2005. The current system has been reviewed and a proposal for a new legal framework is under discussion.

At national level, a range of measures have been used to control new substances, and three broad types of legal response can be identified. In some countries, existing laws that cover issues unrelated to controlled drugs, such as consumer safety legislation, have been used; in others existing drug laws or processes have been extended or adapted; and in some countries new legislation has been designed. While there is wide variation in the definitions of the offences and the penalties, responses tend to focus on supply rather than possession of these substances.

The Internet: a marketplace for both new and established drugs

It has been recognised for some time that the Internet is an important marketplace for the sale of new psychoactive substances to Europeans. In 2013, an EMCDDA snapshot identified 651 websites selling ‘legal highs’ to Europeans, and targeted Internet snapshots carried out in 2014 identified websites offering specific drugs such as the synthetic opioid MT-45 for sale, sometimes in kilogram quantities.

The Internet and social media have also become increasingly important in the market for illicit drugs. Evidence is emerging of so-called grey marketplaces — online sites selling new psychoactive substances which operate on both the surface and the deep web. The deep web is part of the Internet that is not accessible using standard search engines. There, drug sales can take place within marketplaces, within decentralised networks and between individuals. Most attention has been received by drug cryptomarkets such as Silk Road, Evolution and Agora. These online markets are only accessible through the use of encryption software, which offers a high level of anonymity. Cryptomarkets, in common with online marketplaces such as eBay, provide sellers and buyers with an infrastructure to conduct transactions and services, such as seller and buyer ratings and hosting of discussion forums. Cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, are used to facilitate anonymous transactions, and stealth packaging is used to facilitate transportation of small quantities of drugs through established commercial channels. Among the various products advertised on cryptomarkets, established illicit drugs and prescribed medicines are reported to be the most commonly available. Evidence suggests that many illicit drug purchases made on the deep web are intended for resale.

Another development relates to drug supply and the sharing of drugs or drug experiences via social media, including mobile apps. This area remains both poorly understood and difficult to monitor. Together, the growth of online and virtual drug markets poses major challenges to law enforcement and drug control policies. The fact that manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, website-hosting and payment processing services may all be based in different countries makes online drug markets particularly difficult to control.

The Internet is an important marketplace for the sale of new psychoactive substances to Europeans

Responding to drug supply: common principles but differences in practice

Member States take measures to prevent the supply of illicit drugs under three United Nations Conventions, which provide an international framework for control of production, trade and possession of over 240 psychoactive substances. Each country is obliged to treat unauthorised supply as a criminal offence. The same is required for possession of drugs for personal use, but subject to a country’s ‘constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system’. This clause has not been uniformly interpreted, and this is reflected in different legal approaches in European countries and elsewhere.

The implementation of laws to curb drug supply and use is monitored through data on reported drug law offences. Overall, the number of reported offences related to drug supply in Europe has been increasing since 2006. An estimated 230 000 supply offences were reported in 2013, most of which (57 %) related to cannabis. In the same year, of the estimated 1.1 million reported offences for drug use or possession for use, three-quarters (76 %) related to cannabis.

Overall, the number of reported offences related to drug supply in Europe has been increasing since 2006

Wide variation in sentencing practice in Europe

Unauthorised drug supply is a crime in all European countries, but the penalties written in the law vary between states. In some countries, supply offences may be subject to a single wide penalty range (up to life in prison). Other countries differentiate between minor and major supply offences, determined by factors such as the quantity or type of drugs found, with corresponding maximum and minimum penalties. A recent EMCDDA case-scenario analysis found no clear relationship between the maximum penalties provided by the law and the sentences handed out by the courts. It also found that the penalties expected for drug trafficking offences varied between countries. For example, a first-time offender trafficking 1 kg of cannabis may expect a prison sentence varying from less than 1 year in some countries to 10 years in others. Similarly, depending on the country, trafficking 1 kg of heroin could result in a penalty varying between 2 and 15 years.

Seizures and control of precursor chemicals

Drug precursors are chemicals that can be used in the manufacture of illicit drugs, and preventing their diversion from legitimate use is an important element in international efforts against illicit drug production. Most drug precursors have legitimate industrial uses, such as the production of plastics, medicinal products and cosmetics. For example, ephedrine — an ingredient in cold and decongestant medicines — may be used to produce methamphetamine. Due to their legitimate uses, production of and trade in precursor chemicals cannot be prohibited. Instead, drug precursors are controlled by monitoring their licit production and trade.

Data from EU Member States on seizures and stopped shipments of drug precursors confirm the continued use of both scheduled and non-scheduled substances for the production of illicit drugs in the European Union (Table 1.2). In 2013, more than 48 000 kg of the pre-precursor APAAN (alpha-phenylacetoacetonitrile) was seized under national legislation, an amount sufficient to produce over 22 tonnes of amphetamine or methamphetamine. To increase the powers of law enforcement agencies to act on this substance, APAAN was scheduled as a precursor chemical under EU legislation in December 2013, and it was scheduled internationally in October 2014. Major seizures of precursors for MDMA confirm the return of large-scale ecstasy production to the European Union. In 2013, 5 061 kg of PMK (3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone) and 13 836 litres of safrole were seized, which together would be capable of producing about 170 million ecstasy tablets.

New EU legislation was introduced in 2013 to strengthen controls over the trade in some drug precursors, both within the European Union and between Member States and third countries. Among the measures introduced are stricter controls on trade in acetic anhydride, a chemical needed to produce heroin, and in ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, precursors of methamphetamine. The new legislation also introduced a mechanism for rapid response to the diversion of non-scheduled substances.

TABLE 1.2 Summary of seizures and stopped shipments of precursors used for selected synthetic drugs produced in Europe, 2013

(1) A 'stopped' shipment is one that has been denied, suspended or voluntarily withdrawn by the exporter because of suspicion of diversion for illicit purposes. Source: European Commission.

  Seizures Stopped shipments (1) TOTALS
Precursor/pre-precursor Cases Quantity Cases Quantity Cases Quantity
MDMA or related substances
PMK (litres) 12 5 061 0 0 12 5061
Safrole (litres) 4 13 837 1 574 5 14 411
Iso safrole (litres) 1 10 0 0 1 10
Piperonal (kg) 5 5 5 1 400 10 1 404
PMK glycidid/glycidate (kg) 5 2 077 0 0 5 2 077
Amphetamine and methamphetamine
BMK (litres) 5 32 0 0 5 32
PAA, phenylacetic acid (kg) 1 97 6 225 7 322
Ephedrine, bulk (kg) 15 13 0 0 15 13
Pseudoephedrine, bulk (kg) 11 64 0 0 11 64
APAAN (kg) 71 48 802 0 0 71 48 802

FIND OUT MORE

EMCDDA publications

2015

Heroin trafficking routes, Perspectives on Drugs.

New psychoactive substances in Europe. An update from the EU Early Warning System.

The Internet and drug markets, Technical reports.

2014

Cannabis markets in Europe: a shift towards domestic herbal cannabis, Perspectives on Drugs.

Exploring methamphetamine trends in Europe, EMCDDA Papers.

Risk assessment report of a new psychoactive substance: 1-cyclohexyl-4-(1,2-diphenylethyl) piperazine (MT-45), Risk assessments.

Risk assessment of 4-methyl-5-(4-methylphenyl)-4, 5-dihydrooxazol-2-amine (4,4′-dimethylaminorex,4, 4′-DMAR), Risk assessments.

Report on the risk assessment of 1-(1,3-benzodioxol-5-yl)-2-(pyrrolidin-1-yl)pentan-1-one (MDPV) in the framework of the Council Decision on new psychoactive substances, Risk assessments.

Report on the risk assessment of 2-(3-methoxyphenyl)-2-(ethylamino)cyclohexanone (methoxetamine) in the framework of the Council Decision on new psychoactive substances, Risk assessments.

Report on the risk assessment of 2-(4-iodo-2, 5-dimethoxyphenyl)-N-(2-methoxybenzyl)ethanamine (25I-NBOMe) in the framework of the Council Decision on new psychoactive substances, Risk assessments.

Report on the risk assessment of 3,4-dichloro-N-{[1-(dimethylamino)cyclohexyl]methyl}benzamide (AH-7921) in the framework of the Council Decision on new psychoactive substances, Risk assessments.

Report on the risk assessment of 4-methylamphetamine in the framework of the Council Decision on new psychoactive substances, Risk assessments.

Report on the risk assessment of 5-(2-aminopropyl) indole in the framework of the Council Decision on new psychoactive substances, Risk assessments.

2013

Synthetic cannabinoids in Europe, Perspectives on Drugs.

Synthetic drug production in Europe, Perspectives on Drugs.

2012

Cannabis production and markets in Europe, Insights.

2011

Recent shocks in the European heroin market: explanations and ramifications, Trendspotter meeting reports.

Report on the risk assessment of mephedrone in the framework of the Council Decision on new psychoactive substances, Risk assessments.

Responding to new psychoactive substances, Drugs in focus.

2010

Risk assessment of new psychoactive substances — operating guidelines.

EMCDDA and Europol joint publications

Page last updated: Friday, 26 June 2015