Cannabis — Introduction (EU Drug Markets Report)

Introduction

Today the market for cannabis products is the largest drug market in Europe, since cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug. Although for many people cannabis use is experimental and short-lived, for a minority use can become problematic and have serious long-term mental health consequences. Europe has seen an increasing number of people seeking treatment for cannabis-related problems.

Cannabis can be cultivated outdoors in most parts of the world and anywhere indoors, making it the most widely produced illicit drug in the world. The illicit cultivation of cannabis usually produces two distinct cannabis products: herbal cannabis (marijuana) and cannabis resin (hashish). Herbal cannabis is produced by drying the flowering tops of the plants, and resin is the product of processed plant secretions that are normally compressed into blocks.

Globally, it appears that herbal cannabis tends be produced for sale on domestic markets and in neighbouring regions rather than for export outside the region. As a result, herbal cannabis is less likely to be intercepted by authorities in relation to trafficking. In contrast, it seems that so far cannabis resin has been produced largely for export. In the majority of EU countries cannabis consumption is dominated by herbal products, which can be of high potency.

Improved cultivation methods, including indoor techniques and selective plant breeding, have resulted in cannabis plants that grow faster, produce more flowering tops and contain higher concentrations of the main psychoactive constituent, tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC). These factors are likely to have played a role in increased levels of domestic production in Europe, and a concomitant reduced demand for imports, and to have contributed to a shift in the consumer market. They have also probably contributed to a change in cannabis resin production in Morocco, Europe’s main source of this drug. 

Table 3.1

Notes:

  1. EU estimates are computed from national estimates weighted by the population of the relevant age group in each country. They are based on surveys conducted between 2004 and 2014/15 and therefore do not refer to a single year.
  2. Drug users entering treatment for cannabis problems. Units coverage may vary across countries.
  3. The 2014 figures should be considered as estimates; where not available, most recent data were used in place of 2014 data, except for the number of seizures for the Netherlands, France and Poland where no recent data is available so they are not included. An additional 3.4 million cannabis plants and 1.9 tonnes of cannabis plants were seized (33 000 seizures) in Europe, including Norway and Turkey, in 2014.
  4. IQR: interquartile range, or range of the middle half of the reported data.

Data presented are for the EU unless stated otherwise. All trend lines shown in this table cover a 5-year period, 2010–14. All trends reflect absolute numbers except for trends on price and on potency which reflect averages of mean values. In the case of treatment, price and purity, trends are based only on data from those EU countries that have consistently submitted data since 2010.

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

The importance of THC and CBD levels in cannabis products

The two main psychoactive constituents of cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The amount of these and other cannabinoids in cannabis plants varies widely depending on factors such as genetic strain, growing environments, cultivation techniques, processing methods, packaging, transportation, storage and freshness. Intensive indoor cultivation has become widespread
in Europe and elsewhere in recent years. This is based on seed varieties specially selected to give increased yields of flowering tops and THC as well as procedures such as artificial heating and lighting, hydroponic cultivation in nutrient solutions and propagation of cuttings of unfertilised female plants (sinsemilla). This leads to a high production of flowering material. Herbal cannabis produced by such intensive indoor methods may have a THC content two or three times greater than that of naturally grown imported herbal cannabis, but contains very low levels of CBD.

CBD is known for its antipsychotic properties. Therefore, any reduction in CBD in illicit cannabis may have implications for the overall negative health consequences associated with consumption. Data on drug treatment demand and some studies have shown links between cannabis use and an increased risk of developing psychotic illness, anxiety disorder or depression, although only a small proportion of users are affected. The absence of the protective effects of CBD in varieties of herbal cannabis with high THC and low levels of CBD may be a significant factor and, given these concerns, the levels of these chemicals in cannabis products should be carefully monitored as the cannabis market develops.