Trafficking of cannabis in Europe (EU Drug Markets Report)

Trafficking of cannabis in Europe

Supplementing domestic production within Member States, cannabis is imported from other EU Member States and from outside the EU, and cannabis is the most commonly seized drug in Europe, accounting for more than 75 % of the total number of seizures of all drugs made in the region in 2014. This reflects the widespread availability of the drug, which is the most consumed in Europe, among other factors. Although much larger quantities of cannabis resin continue to be seized in Europe, seizures of cannabis herb outnumbered those of resin for the first time in 2009, and the gap has widened since (see Figure 3.3). Thus, in 2014, 243 000 seizures allowed the confiscation of some 606 tonnes of resin in the EU, Norway and Turkey, while 501 000 seizures of herb resulted in the capture of 232 tonnes of cannabis herb. 

Case study 9: Operation SAUCO — cannabis resin trafficking

In February 2014, almost 1 tonne of cannabis resin was discovered by Spanish police concealed in the false bottom of a sailing boat that had arrived in Spain from Morocco. Investigations revealed that the OCG behind the shipment comprised Moroccan, Spanish and German criminals who had set up false companies in Spain and Germany to launder their proceeds. Despite the seizure, the group continued to operate until it was eventually dismantled in October 2014, when 20 people were arrested in a joint day of action during which 44 vehicles, 21 properties, one yacht and EUR 27 500 cash were also seized.

Source: Guardia Civil (2014). 

Spain, a major entry point for hashish produced in Morocco, has traditionally been the country seizing the largest quantities of cannabis resin in Europe, seizing nearly two-thirds of the European total in 2014. However, Spain, together with Greece and Italy, has also reported large increases in seizures of cannabis herb in recent years, although Turkey is now the country reporting the largest quantities of herbal cannabis seized in Europe, more than 90 tonnes in 2014. In 2013, Turkey also reported seizing more than 180 tonnes of cannabis herb, which is more than all other European countries combined (EMCDDA, 2015a).

Cannabis herb is also imported from outside the EU. For example, several large seizures made in the port of Antwerp in 2013 originated from Senegal (7.6 tonnes), Ghana (4.1 tonnes) and Honduras (1.7 tonnes) (Belgium: Reitox, 2014). 

Organised crime: a threatening player on the European cannabis market

A recent Europol survey has mapped out the intra- European trafficking flows of EU-produced cannabis herb and imported cannabis resin associated with major crime groups active in Europe. The survey outlines a geography of strategic locations for organised crime activities linked to cannabis products (see Figure 3.4). Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are reported to
be important locations for producing cannabis herb for export because of their well-established industrialised structures linked to organised crime. Production of high- potency herbal material for export also appears to be significant in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Spain and Slovakia. Spain is a key importation point for cannabis resin produced in Morocco (see Case study 9 on page 61), with Belgium, and even more so the Netherlands, acting as major distribution hubs for wholesale quantities. Albania and the Netherlands appear to be the main distribution hubs for Afghan cannabis resin (Europol, 2015d).

Violence, such as kidnapping, torture and murder, seems to be a salient feature of the sector of the European cannabis market controlled by OCGs, despite the fact that the groups also often collaborate with each other. This violence often occurs during or as a result of raids by rival gangs on cannabis plantations. Indeed, some OCGs, especially Moroccan groups, are reported to specialise in raiding other groups’ cultivation sites in order to save the time, effort and money required to obtain cannabis harvests. Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, as well as Switzerland, have all reported incidents of extreme violence linked to cannabis cultivation over the last 3 years.

The herb produced in the Netherlands, as well as that grown by Dutch OCGs in, for instance, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, is trafficked practically everywhere in Europe. Major consumer markets for the cannabis herb produced by Dutch groups include relatively large and wealthy countries such as Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, as well as Russia. 

Figure 3.3

Seizures of cannabis reported in Europe, 2006–14 

Note: Some data for 2014 is not available and the most recent data has been used instead, except for the number of seizures for the Netherlands, France and Poland where no recent data is available so they are not included. 

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

Dutch and ethnic Vietnamese OCGs: key players for cannabis herb

The important role played by Dutch OCGs in cannabis production has been described above, and Dutch OCGs are known to collaborate with Albanian-speaking and Moroccan criminal gangs involved in the cannabis trade. It should also be noted that some OMCGs are involved in cannabis cultivation in the Netherlands, and in the trafficking of cannabis products to countries in northern (e.g. Denmark, Finland), north-western (United Kingdom, Belgium) and central Europe (Germany, Austria). The Netherlands is also an important distribution centre for cannabis resin, especially from Morocco, trafficked via Spain, and from there to the Netherlands via France and Belgium.

Ethnic Vietnamese OCGs based in Europe are comparative newcomers on the cannabis scene, but they are now firmly established as important suppliers for consumer markets in many countries. In particular, their activities have been linked with recent increases in the number of professional cultivation sites dismantled in central and eastern Europe, especially the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. However, Vietnamese OCGs have been active for some time in a number of Member States, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Hungary. Vietnamese OCGs run their own plantations but also sell technical expertise in setting up plantations to other groups, and are involved in other forms of crime such as methamphetamine production and trafficking of humans. Vietnamese OCGs are known for coercing illegal immigrants to work as gardeners in cannabis plantations, often in harsh conditions. Many of the immigrants used in this way are bonded by debt and work in cannabis production sites as a way to pay for their passage to Europe (MRCI, 2014) (see the section ‘Human trafficking and exploitation’ in Chapter 1). 

Figure 3.4

Main trafficking flows of cannabis in Europe 

Note: The trafficking flows represented are a synthesis of a number of information sources and should be considered indicative rather than accurate descriptions of the main trafficking flows. 

Source: Europol. 

Cannabis resin: Moroccan trafficking routes diversify while Afghan hash makes inroads

Although it has lost market share to cannabis herb in recent years, cannabis resin, mostly of Moroccan origin, is still widely consumed in Europe and its supply is largely in the hands of OCGs. The largest markets for cannabis resin are found in western and northern Europe (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom), but Russia and Belarus also appear to be important. The Netherlands and, probably to a lesser extent, Belgium are traditional distribution hubs for cannabis resin, for instance to Scandinavia via Germany, or to Russia and Belarus via Poland and the Baltic countries. Hashish is also distributed from Denmark to the Nordic countries. Many shipments of resin destined for the French market are organised and depart from Spain, especially Andalusia. Europol also notes that members of the Italian Camorra mafia group organise cannabis resin shipments from Spain to Italy, either directly or via the Netherlands.

A recent and potentially significant development in the trafficking of cannabis resin to Europe from Morocco is the use of ships that transport the resin eastwards on the Mediterranean Sea to countries in the north of Africa, where OCGs may be exploiting unstable security environments (Figure 3.5). This is evidenced by several large seizures in the region. The Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre — Narcotics (MAOC-N) reports that in recent years it has been actively involved in the seizure of over 100 tonnes of cannabis resin off the coast of North Africa, at least some of which is thought to have been destined for European drug markets. A link has also been made between this maritime trafficking and the facilitation of illegal immigration to Europe, although the specifics of this are not well understood at present (Europol, 2015d).

Moroccan criminal groups are major players in the supply of cannabis resin to Europe, sometimes in partnership with European OCGs, for instance Dutch and Albanian- speaking OCGs. Some Moroccan OCGs are able to control the whole chain of trafficking, from production in the Rif mountains to retail sales in, for instance, Marseille, France. In addition, their control over wholesale imports and sales allow them to exert significant influence on most markets in Europe. These groups are reported to cooperate with each other through Moroccan communities living in Europe, especially France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries. Albanian OCGs are reported to be involved in the trade of Afghan cannabis resin, mostly to eastern and central Europe and, via the Netherlands, the United Kingdom. However, it seems that the United Kingdom also receives Afghan hashish directly from South-West Asia. 

Figure 3.5

Large maritime shipments of cannabis resin 

A seizure of 20 tonnes of cannabis resin from the Jupiter cargo-ship in Cagliari, Italy, in September 2015. One of several large seizures of Moroccan cannabis resin from ships traveling eastwards on the Mediterranean Sea. The cannabis resin was stored in a compartment hidden underneath a shipment of huge granite blocks. 

Photos © Europol 

Short title: 
Trafficking