Chapter 4: Heroin and other opioids (EU Drug Markets Report)

Key issues

The European heroin problem

Although indicators suggest a long-term decline, the heroin market is still large, estimated as at least EUR 6.8 billion per year (range EUR 6 to 7.8 billion), and the drug remains responsible for a significant proportion
of Europe’s drug-related health and social costs. Worryingly, some signals suggest an increase in availability that may pose greater risks to current users and the potential for new heroin users.

Heroin and the market for opioid drugs

The opioid market, in which heroin still predominates, appears to be more dynamic and complex than in the past, with more substances available to consumers. Transitions between heroin and other opioids, such as fentanyl and substitution medicines, have been observed. Prescription medicines and new synthetic opioids, which can be purchased online, are likely to be of increasing importance for both public health and law enforcement.

Understanding production

Understanding heroin production is important in order to analyse market dynamics and estimate size. Opium production estimates for Afghanistan, the main source of heroin
in the EU, fluctuate but remain high, even though methodological uncertainties exist. Moreover, increased opium production has recently been noted again in South-East Asia. Morphine seizures outside Afghanistan may signal displacement of heroin production to new countries, including Europe. Monitoring of the diversion and trafficking of acetic anhydride is not only an essential element for a robust control framework but can also signal changes in opiate production.

Implications of large seizures

The recent increase in seizures of very large heroin consignments has important ramifications. Shipments of this size imply that relatively few consignments could
have a significant impact on availability. The implications of this change need to be better understood as it may be important for understanding the relative importance of different trafficking routes, particularly those exploiting maritime and container trafficking opportunities.

Organised crime and changing business models

Production techniques, locations, trafficking routes and associated modi operandi appear increasingly flexible and dynamic and quick to adapt to successful law enforcement activities. Turkish, Albanian-speaking and Pakistani OCGs are key players for heroin trafficking into Europe. Cooperation between groups, and with local OCGs, exists and may be increasing. The use of decentralised business models facilitates the sharing of assets and logistics, and results in risk displacement. OCGs are involved in trafficking of multiple drugs, precursors, weapons, other illicit commodities and, sometimes, migrants.

The importance of the Balkan route

The Balkan route remains a key corridor for heroin entry into the EU. This area therefore remains a natural focus for law enforcement efforts. Important recent developments include the emergence of two new off-shoots to the Balkan route involving the Southern Caucasus and Syria and Iraq. Turkey, in terms of both organised crime activities and anti- trafficking measures, remains of central importance, especially given its proximity to areas of instability in the Middle East. Potential connections between flows of heroin and other drugs and terrorist groups in this region are a major concern, and Turkey is a key partner to help counter these threats.

The wider impact of trafficking routes

Significant domestic demand already exists along all trafficking routes and may be growing, with drug trafficking acting as an additional destabilising factor in countries often faced with other serious political, social, health and economic problems. Developments on the Southern route, in particular, are worrying owing to the potentially larger role of this route in the supply of heroin and other drugs to Europe and its negative impact on African countries.