Introduction (EU Drug Markets Report)


In 2013, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol published the EU drug markets report: a strategic analysis, which was the first report of its kind, bringing together our knowledge and understanding of the operation and structure of the drug market within the broader context of the illicit drugs phenomenon. In this report, we build upon the groundwork carried out during that first joint analysis, developing the themes and applying new ideas and concepts that give us an improved insight into this dynamic policy-relevant field. The coupling of Europol’s expertise and knowledge of criminal networks with the EMCDDA’s holistic overview of the drug situation helps to separate important signals from the ever-present noise. This provides a unique insight that will inform policy development and facilitate action at European Union (EU) and national level.

In this report we present cross-cutting themes that help us understand the illicit drug market. For this we first need to explain what exactly we mean by ‘drug market’. Here we use the term to describe the entire chain of events from the production of the drug in the source country to acquisition of the drug by the user in the destination country. We can think of this in terms of the processes, the actors and the impacts/harms. The process includes, but is not limited to, the farming of drug crops; the procurement of precursor chemicals and specialist equipment; the production of the drug itself; trafficking activities and routes; concealment methods; the adulteration steps; and the distribution from wholesale all the way down to the retail level and, finally, consumption. The actors involved are farmers or synthetic drug ‘cooks’, members of organised criminal groups, facilitators, corrupt officials, middlemen, professionals, whether complicit or not, specialists providing criminal services, dealers and consumers. In addition, the report considers the broader harms associated with drug markets and their impact on society.

Reflecting upon the conclusions and recommendations of the first edition, we find that many are still relevant today, while some new themes are emerging. For example, the adaptable and opportunistic nature of organised crime remains a key challenge for law enforcement, often hampered by the refocusing of national priorities or the need to work with diminishing resources. Criminal elements respond to innovations and take advantage of their ready access to large amounts of cash to buy specialist services, such as the hacking of computer systems, or the latest communication equipment with secure encryption technologies. The internet continues to change how we live, and the recent developments of anonymising software and crypto-currencies such as ‘bitcoin’ offer new opportunities for online drug supply. Traditional trafficking routes persist, but diversification continues, and the routes appear to be less commodity specific than before, whilst legitimate transport and logistic infrastructures continue to be exploited, with maritime containers representing a convenient channel for large consignments of drugs coming to Europe.

There has been progress on many of the recommendations, and the report was influential in informing EU policy initiatives in this area. Examples of the wide range of initiatives being undertaken both within the EU and internationally are included in the report, and considerable work has been undertaken to improve our knowledge of organised crime operations and to focus on the individuals and groups who are most harmful, but there still remains more to be done. In some areas there has been less progress and, as a result, work on these recommendations needs to continue; however, new challenges are also emerging.

Our understanding of how criminal actors and activities in the drug market permeate our society has evolved to the point at which we can begin to describe it in some detail. Our analysis shows how drug markets are related to other criminal activities, and that they create a strain on government institutions and have a serious impact on legal business and the wider economy, not to mention negative effects on neighbourhoods, families and individuals. We report how the drugs business and the organised crime groups that control it have an impact upon many aspects of society, from the exploitation of vulnerable migrants as a workforce for cannabis cultivation to the corruption of officials in public office.

The report also considers the critical success factors for criminal organisations operating within the drugs market and the conditions that influence their operations. Building on previous research projects, we present for the first time estimates of the retail market size, in terms of quantity and value, for the main drugs. These have been constructed as far as possible from the data routinely submitted by Member States to the EMCDDA, and we have been guided in doing so by an advisory group of leading experts in these methods. In making these estimates we have made some very bold assumptions, and the figures we have derived must be seen as indicative only. However, we believe that this is the right time to start undertaking this work, and that the estimation process itself will highlight important gaps in our knowledge which, if filled, will lead to improvements in the estimates in the future as the methodology is refined.

At the same time, we must not forget the on-going instability in some neighbouring regions that could have potentially profound effects on the drug situation in Europe. It is clear that illicit drug markets remain one of the key threats to the security of the European Union. Efforts to understand them and the key actors involved are essential if we are to make sound policy decisions that will have any lasting impact. This report aims to improve that understanding and provide a platform for debate in the coming years. After all, drug markets are essentially driven by two simple motives: profit and power. The ability to undermine these motives is critical if we are to have any impact on drug-related crime and reduce the wider impacts on society.

Alexis Goosdeel

Alexis Goosdeel, Director, EMCDDA

Rob Wainwright

Rob Wainwright, Director, Europol

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