Chapter 3: Cannabis (EU Drug Markets Report)

Key issues

The importance of the cannabis market in Europe

With an estimated retail value of more than EUR 9 billion per year (range EUR 8 to 13 billion) and over 22 million annual users, the illicit market for cannabis is the largest drug market in the EU. It represents an important source of revenue for OCGs and is associated with violence and other forms of crime that have a range of impacts on communities.

Market dominated by domestic herbal product

Cannabis is commonly available in Europe in two forms, herbal cannabis and cannabis resin. However, increased production in the EU in the last 10 years has led to a shift in the market, with domestically produced herb becoming more important and displacing imported resin in many countries. This has led to greater levels of intra-EU trafficking. In addition, Turkey reported seizing more cannabis herb in 2014 than any other European country.

Rapid innovation

There is evidence of product innovation with respect to edible products, oils and cannabis preparations intended for use in vaporisers. The adoption of these has the potential to affect patterns of use and harms, but information in this area is currently sparse.

Potency increases

Most of the herbal cannabis produced in Europe is cultivated indoors and appears to be of high potency. Furthermore, in Morocco, the main source of resin for Europe, there has been a switch to cultivation of higher-potency plants and the production of stronger resin. The average potency of both herbal and resin products available in Europe has almost doubled in the last decade, with prices only increasing slightly.

Health concerns

Trends in prevalence of use vary among countries, with some high-consuming countries showing marked declines in prevalence but other countries showing increases. There is also variability in demand for treatment related to cannabis use but, overall, this has increased. Public health concerns are greatest for daily users, estimated at 3 million, and those initiating use at an early age. High-potency forms of the drug may be more harmful.

Organised crime plays a key role

Dutch and ethnic Vietnamese OCGs, in particular, are well established and are expanding cannabis herb production in several EU Member States. They also provide know-how and equipment to other criminal groups that want to start cannabis production. Intensive domestic production sites have not only been linked to violent inter-group crime and to electricity theft but are also associated with human trafficking activities. Moroccan OCGs, working in partnership with European groups, have an established role in the importation and sale of cannabis resin in the EU, with the Netherlands and Spain acting as key distribution points. However, both countries may also be important herbal cannabis producers, since a recent increase in seizures in Spain suggests growth in production. Albanian-speaking groups play a variety of roles as producers of cannabis herb in both the EU and Albania and as distributors of Afghan resin, which is making inroads in some EU countries.

Moroccan resin moving east

The interception of large consignments of Moroccan cannabis resin moving eastwards along the North African coast raises the possibility of a new smuggling route into Europe or the opening of new markets in an unstable region.