Consumer market for cannabis in Europe (EU Drug Markets Report)

Consumer market for cannabis in Europe

The cannabis market is now more diverse than ever before, with the potency of available products generally higher than in the past. These changes suggest a less benign image of the drug and a far more professionalised, commercial supply than the popular characterisation of cannabis in the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is not clear if these changes are driven by consumer preference or the changes in the production and supply. This is an area that merits further investigation to inform the current debates around the liberalisation of cannabis control.

In almost all countries the prevalence of cannabis use far exceeds that of the other major drug groups. Almost a quarter of 15- to 64-year-olds in the EU, approximately 83.2 million adults, are estimated to have tried the drug at least once in their lifetime. Use is higher among young adults, with almost one in eight young adults (aged 15–34 years), or 16.6 million individuals, using cannabis in the last year. However, cross-European estimates mask between- country variations not only in the extent of use (estimates of last-year prevalence of use among young adults range from less than 1 % to over 20 %), but also in trends in use. For example, surveys in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom have shown decreasing or stable trends in reported use while, in contrast, increasing prevalence can be observed in Bulgaria, France and three of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland and Sweden) (EMCDDA, 2015a).

Other developments in cannabis consumption give rise to some concerns. In some countries where use has been declining or stable, there are some signs of a change in this trend among younger people. Cannabis is now the drug most frequently reported as the principal reason for treatment entry by clients entering treatment for the first time in the EU. When all treatment entrants are considered, it is the second most frequently mentioned drug. It is important to note, however, that treatment data reflect not only need but availability of cannabis treatment or referral practices. However, the change in the potency and the balance between THC and CBD in the cannabis on the market (see box on page 53) as well as age at first use of cannabis may also play a role.

Information on the frequency of cannabis use is becoming increasingly available from national surveys. It is estimated that 1 % of those aged 15–64 years in the EU, or about 3 million individuals, smoke cannabis on a daily or near-daily basis, but with considerable variability between countries (EMCDDA, 2015a). 

The size of the market for cannabis

The estimated value of the retail market for cannabis in the EU is over EUR 9.3 billion in 2013, with a likely range of EUR 8.4–12.9 billion. This represents just under two-fifths of the total illicit market in drugs. Our estimates of amounts used suggest that in 2013 about 647 tonnes of herbal cannabis (range 581–903 tonnes) and 641 tonnes of resin (range 573–887 tonnes) were consumed.

In reaching these estimates, we have used information on numbers of users from the general population surveys conducted in most countries but, recognising that some groups of drug users are unlikely to be represented in these surveys, we have supplemented these with estimates of cannabis use by problem users of other types of drugs. Separate estimates for consumption of herbal cannabis and resin were also calculated but, since information on the type of cannabis use was not collected in the surveys used, these estimates are based on the proportion of the seizures (in terms of numbers) that are herbal cannabis, and this may not be a very good proxy for use. There are a number of other limitations to these estimates (see box on page 24) and further details of the estimation methods are given in the background paper published alongside this report (EMCDDA, 2016a). 

Diversification of cannabis products

Apart from herbal cannabis and resin, which are by far the most common products, other products may be made from the cannabis plant. Probably the best known of these is cannabis oil, a product made by purifying either the herbal substance or the resin, to produce an extract that has a higher concentration of THC. Traditionally, little cannabis oil was seized in Europe. In 2014, however, fairly large amounts were seized. Indeed, 11 countries reported seizing a total of 119 kg of cannabis oil, with Spain alone confiscating 103 kg. This may be an indicator of on-going market diversification in Europe.

The liberalisation of cannabis use in North America and elsewhere may be driving a renaissance in innovative methods to prepare cannabis products, which could lead to an expansion of the range of cannabis products on offer in Europe. For example, there are reports that cannabis oil prepared using butane gas has become more popular in North America, although the process of making this is inherently dangerous due to the flammable gas used. The product, called BHO (butane hash/honey oil, ‘wax’ or ‘shatter’), is reported to have a high concentration of THC. A recent study concluded that hospital emergencies due to burns associated with the production of BHO have increased since the liberalisation of cannabis policy in Colorado (Bell et al., 2015). The situation in the United States has also led to the emergence of other products containing cannabis, most notably edible ones, such as cookies or ‘brownies’.

Figure 3.1

Associating electronic cigarettes with cannabis symbols 

Shop window in Glasgow, United Kingdom, December 2015 Photo © Andrew Cunningham 

For consumers interested in making their own cannabis resin, methods for domestic production are available. One such method combines a sieving technique with a cold water extraction process to produce a potent resin product that is then smoked. Kits and equipment to perform this procedure are commercially available in the EU and readily available in grow shops.

The use of electronic cigarettes or vaporisers to consume cannabis would also appear to be gaining in popularity, with many online shops offering advice and equipment for this purpose. In the absence of a better source of information, Google trends suggests that interest in ‘vaping cannabis’ has been increasing since September 2013, and to a lesser extent ‘vaping cannabis oil’ since early 2015. This may have positive implications for public health, particularly given the high levels of the co-use of tobacco and cannabis in European countries.

Finally, an important and more negative factor in the diversification of cannabis products is the appearance of synthetic cannabinoid products on the market (see also Chapter 7). These products are not in any way derived from the cannabis plant although they are aimed at cannabis users. They are mainly herbal products; resins and liquids containing the chemicals are also available, but to a much lesser extent. The motivations to take such products are numerous but poor access to real cannabis and the possibility of being drug tested are cited as key factors. Attempting to circumvent use-related prosecution or, in some countries, to avoid a cannabis-positive roadside drug test are other reasons cited (Fattore and Fratta, 2011; van Amsterdam et al., 2015). For example, the problem of synthetic cannabinoid use in prisons in England and Wales, where a random mandatory drug testing programme in is force, may be in part driven by the desire to avoid positive tests since these substances are not currently detected by such tests (HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 2015). 

Short title: 
Consumer market