Executive summary (EU Drug Markets Report)

Executive summary

This report explores the concept of the illicit drug market within the broader context of changing patterns of drug use, cultural and social factors and links to wider criminality. Drug markets continue to be one of the most profitable areas for organised crime groups (OCGs) and it is estimated that EU citizens spend over EUR 24 billion (range EUR 21 to 31 billion) every year on illicit drugs. The impacts that drug markets have on society are correspondingly large and go beyond the harms caused by drug use. They include involvement in other types of criminal activities and in terrorism; impacts on legal businesses and the wider economy; strain on and corruption of government institutions; and impacts on wider society.

Three overarching themes emerge from our analysis:

  • The increasing organisational and technical complexity, interconnectedness and specialisation of groups involved in drug markets.
  • Globalisation and technology are accelerating the rate of change in the drug market.
  • Drug market-related activities are concentrated in a number of established and emerging geographical locations.

These developments challenge those trying to respond to the problems created by the illicit drug market and the associated wider problems and suggest that:

  • A systemic analysis of drug market business models will be helpful for both operational and policy purposes.
  • Partnerships between national authorities and with industry are becoming ever more important, as is engagement with international organisations and third countries.
  • Efficient use of resources can be achieved through the identification and targeting of geographical locations where drug market-related activities are concentrated.
  • Continuing recognition of the value of a strategic response, informed by sound information used to identify new opportunities as well as challenges, is essential.

The report also looks in more detail at the markets for the main drug types and the key points are summarised below.

Cannabis is the most widely used drug in Europe and it is estimated that cannabis accounts for around 38 % of the retail market for illicit drugs and is worth more than EUR 9.3 billion annually (range EUR 8.4 to 12.9 billion). Some 22 million adults in the EU have used it in the last year and around 1 % of European adults use it on an almost daily basis, increasing the risk of health and social problems. OCGs are heavily involved, making full use of technological innovations to produce larger quantities of more potent products in Europe itself. While the market is dominated by herbal cannabis grown within the EU, the cannabis resin from Morocco has been increasing in potency and may be trafficked to the EU alongside other illicit goods and human beings, a trend potentially exacerbated by instability in North Africa and the Middle East.

The heroin market is the second largest illicit drug market in the EU. It is estimated at EUR 6.8 billion annually (range EUR 6.0 to 7.8 billion) and is responsible for a significant proportion of drug-related deaths and social costs. Following a period of decline, there are recent signs of increasing availability that may signal increased harms. Opium production remains generally high in Afghanistan. Production techniques, locations, trafficking routes and modi operandi are increasingly flexible and dynamic, as shown by an increase in very large heroin seizures, suggesting a shift to maritime container trafficking, and new  routes involving Africa, the Southern Caucasus, Syria and Iraq are emerging. Nevertheless, the Balkan route remains a key corridor for heroin entry to the EU. There are also signs of diversification in the market, with prescription medicines and new synthetic opioids increasingly being misused.

Cocaine is Europe’s most commonly used illicit stimulant, with a retail market estimated to be worth at least EUR 5.7 billion annually (range EUR 4.5 to 7.0 billion). Most use occurs in western and southern Europe and has been fairly stable over recent years, although there are signs of increasing availability. Coca cultivation appears to be increasing after a period of decline but there is uncertainty about how much cocaine is produced and where this occurs. Sea and air transport are used to traffic cocaine to Europe, with Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela being key departure points. The Caribbean and West Africa remain important transit areas, while Central America is emerging. Use of maritime containers shipped through major European ports is a continuing problem. An evolving array of concealment methods is used, including cocaine being incorporated into ‘carrier materials’ (e.g. plastics) before being chemically extracted on arrival in Europe. Colombian and Italian groups continue to dominate wholesale cocaine supply to Europe, in cooperation with other groups (e.g. Dutch, British and Spanish). West African, especially Nigerian, groups are also active in transporting cocaine from Africa to Europe and Balkan OCGs are emerging actors.

The market for the main synthetic stimulants, amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA, is estimated to be at least EUR 1.8 billion annually (range EUR 1.2 to 2.5 billion) in the case of amphetamines (including methamphetamine) and EUR 0.67 billion (range EUR 0.61 to 0.72 billion) for MDMA/ecstasy. Amphetamines appeal to both recreational and marginalised drug users and the market for them interacts with those for cocaine and some new psychoactive substances. Recent concerns include the availability of high-dose MDMA products and the increased use of methamphetamine. In the EU, the Netherlands and Belgium are important for MDMA and amphetamine production, while most methamphetamine appears to be made in the Czech Republic. Production is becoming more sophisticated and diverse, and the use of new precursor and pre-precursor chemicals may increase health risks. The dumping of toxic waste also poses health risks and causes environmental damage. Aggressive marketing is becoming more apparent in the ecstasy market suggesting competition between suppliers and more active targeting of specific groups of users.

A large number of new psychoactive substances (NPS) are sold openly as ‘legal’ replacements for illicit drugs. There are no signs of a slowdown in the development of these substances; 100 new substances were reported for the first time in 2015 and the EU Early Warning System is monitoring over 560. The market supplies both recreational and, increasingly, marginalised users and producers anticipate legal and regulatory controls by developing new substances. Globalised supply chains allow bulk quantities of NPS to be ordered online and transported to Europe where they are packaged and marketed on the open or illicit drug market. It is a low-risk, high-profit business attractive to organised crime and there are signs of production in Europe. Distinct but overlapping markets have emerged, such as ‘legal highs’, ‘research chemicals’ and ‘dietary supplements’ sold through ‘bricks and mortar’ and online shops. With increased availability, harms have increased, such as acute, sometimes fatal, poisonings and harms associated with injecting cathinones. 

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Executive summary