Overview (EU Drug Markets Report)


Background and aims of the report

This report provides a contemporary, strategic and action-orientated analysis of the information available on Europe’s drug market. It is built on a synthesis of operational intelligence, research data and information available from the on-going monitoring of the drug situation. The extent and nature of the drug market, in all its ramifications, is an important topic for this sort of consideration. Significant effort and resources are dedicated to restricting the supply of drugs in the European Union (EU) as part of an integrated and evidence-based balanced approach that also recognises the parallel importance of reducing the demand for drugs. The justification for these investments is that activities in this area benefit both public health and community safety as well as contributing more generally to economic and social wellbeing. But sound policy and actions in an area such as drug control are possible only if they are grounded in an understanding of the complex nature of the problems they are addressing. The hidden, and criminal, nature of the drug market makes it a challenging issue in this respect. Moreover, these challenges are growing, as the drug market has become more dynamic, internally interlinked and externally connected to many of the other critical policy issues Europe faces today. This report helps address these information needs by providing a state-of-the-art review of the data currently available in this area, and draws from this analysis key learning and action points.

The report describes the EU drug market from a number of different perspectives. Starting with consideration of the overall impact of the drug market on society, the overlap with other criminal activities and the drivers of these, it then takes a more in-depth look at what is known about the markets for the main illicit drugs. The last part of the report then reviews the policy and operational responses to the challenges posed by these markets. Thus, the report is intended to provide a comprehensive overview of what is known about the European drug market. This is unavoidably derived from a triangulation between diverse, partial and often contradictory information sources. While putting these together helps provide a more complete picture, it remains important to acknowledge uncertainty and identify where critical information gaps exist. Therefore, throughout this report attention is also drawn to ‘what we don’t know, but need to know, about the European drug market’, an essential introspection if future policies and actions in this area are to deliver maximum returns.

Insights provided by an analysis of the EU drug market in 2016

A number of overarching key themes emerge from the analysis presented in this report. There is increasing evidence that organised crime groups continue to take advantage of weak states and conflict zones, a situation that appears to be worsening. Furthermore, organised criminal groups actively facilitate their illicit business by managing risks and avoiding detection. This may be accomplished by establishing front companies, using the latest encryption and other technologies, hiring specialists to provide ‘crime as a service’, by corrupting officials and professionals, and by the use or threat of violence. At the same time, globalisation and the internet have continued to play a key part in transforming the way in which the drug market operates, resulting in supply chains becoming shorter and opportunities for detection being reduced. These developments represent major challenges for existing policy and practice in this area, but a better understanding of them may present new opportunities to intervene. There is a need to reinforce international cooperation efforts and to ensure that the available legal and judicial mechanisms, tools and platforms are used effectively. Efforts to improve the sharing of information and intelligence on a strategic and operational basis, building border control capacities where needed, and to develop closer collaboration both between different law enforcement agencies, and between these agencies and the private sector, are clear priority areas for action. The exchange of knowledge, expertise and best practice, and the provision of training are domains in which the collective EU experience has the ability to plug gaps in vulnerable areas. It is abundantly clear that there are key strategic locations for the drug market and therefore coordinated operational activities targeting these areas are likely to be particularly valuable. Beyond this, the expanding demand for drugs in countries neighbouring the EU and elsewhere must have consequences for the EU in the future, and therefore vigilance and international engagement are likely to become even more important. Lastly, but of considerable importance, is the recognition that the drug market concept is one where the supply of drugs interacts with the demand for these substances. In order to adequately address the negative consequences of the drug market, both for individuals and for society as a whole, effective drug prevention, treatment and harm reduction interventions are as important as interventions aimed at reducing supply.

Key themes and their implications for action

Three overarching, interconnected themes emerge from the analysis developed in this report:

The increasing organisational and technical complexity, interconnectedness and specialisation of groups involved in drug markets. It is now common for organised crime groups (OCGs) involved with the drug market to diversify across multiple drugs, to engage in other forms of criminality, and to form alliances across ethnic and geographical boundaries. Meanwhile there is more specialisation seen in respect of roles and the use and sharing of assets alongside the harnessing of specialist expertise.

Globalisation and technology are accelerating the rate of change in the drug market. The dramatic transformation seen in legitimate commodity markets arising from developments in the global economy and information technology also affect the illicit drug market. Criminal groups are quick to identify and exploit the opportunities provided by easier access to information, the internet as a social and commercial medium, and the growth in international trade, with large volumes of goods rapidly moving across international borders and through multiple transit points.

Drug market-related activities are concentrated in a number of established and emerging geographical locations. Innovation in synthetic drug production and changes in cannabis cultivation have resulted in greater opportunities for drugs to be produced nearer to consumer markets in the EU. Nevertheless, within Europe and elsewhere, some specific geographical locations or ‘hotspots’ remain particularly important for drug production or trafficking. Some of these areas are long established, while new zones are also emerging.

For those taking action in this area, these themes have important implications, which are elaborated further in the action points in the main body of this report. They are:

A systemic analysis of drug market business models will be helpful for both operational and policy purposes. Understanding the dependencies and potential for interaction between different areas of the drug market, and the rationales, roles and organisational models used within it, is of growing importance. This perspective can assist the disruption of market activities by identifying modi operandi, structural vulnerabilities and emerging new threats, helping to refocus operational priorities on key target areas.

Partnerships between national authorities and with industry are becoming ever more important, as is engagement with international organisations and third countries. Organised crime groups are likely to be active in a diverse range of criminal activities, spanning, or deliberately exploiting the existence of, national borders and involving links with legitimate business sectors. This means that inter-sectoral cooperation, coordination and intelligence sharing, both within and between countries, are of increasing value. Correspondingly, poorly coordinated responses may increase the risk of displacement to those areas where enforcement efforts or regulatory frameworks are weakest; transnational crime requires a transnational response.

Efficient use of resources can be achieved through the identification and targeting of geographical locations where drug market-related activities are concentrated. Such specific locations, which include large container ports, parcel delivery hubs, specific land or air border points, and relatively discrete geographical areas used for drug production, represent priority targets for interdiction efforts. More generally, the larger but still distinct geographical areas identified in this report as important zones for drug production or trafficking activities deserve special attention, and coordinated action plans, addressing development and governance issues alongside drug-related programmes, will be necessary for an effective response.

Continuing recognition of the value of a strategic response, informed by sound information used to identify new opportunities, as well as challenges, is essential. This report makes a strong case for continuing to invest in an intelligence- and data-driven approach to the drug market, which is supported by concrete examples of how and why this works. Looking to the future, the need to anticipate and respond more rapidly to emerging threats is clearly growing. It is equally important to identify and exploit new opportunities, for example: insights derived from forensic data (so-called ‘forensic intelligence’); new technologies for monitoring and surveillance; increased opportunities for international engagement driven by the recognition of shared problems; and growing operational understanding and capacity to work in challenging areas, such as cyber-enabled drug markets.

The EU Drug Markets Report — main elements

This report uses the concept of the drug market as a useful perspective for focusing on the illicit production, trafficking and sale of controlled substances. The rationale for this is that, despite being one of the priority areas for drug control policy and supply reduction activities, the drug market is rarely considered holistically or systemically and yet such a perspective is likely to be critically important to both the formulation and evaluation of activities in this area. Supply reduction efforts are central to Europe’s response to the drug problem, and in this report these are considered within the general context of a multidisciplinary approach which has the objective of improving public safety, with a focus on protecting public health, but also preventing and reducing violence and other harmful consequences associated with the production, distribution and use of drugs. At a strategic level, the identification, disruption and dismantling of serious organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption are key elements of law enforcement activities in this area.

One of the key aims of this report is to highlight that drug markets, though largely hidden, do not operate in isolation but have widespread implications for society. Part I of the report explores the impacts of the drug market and the harms it causes not only to those involved in the trade, but also to the legal economy, government institutions and society more generally. The links with other serious criminality that may also be perpetrated by organised crime groups involved in the drug trade are also explored. This includes human trafficking and exploitation, and there is also some evidence of links to terrorist activities. The damage to the environment caused by the dumping of waste materials from drug production is often overlooked, but its impact can be severe and include harm to fragile ecosystems and surrounding populations in producing regions, or pollution to land and water systems in the EU. Part I also examines the current drivers of drug market evolution, such as developments arising from globalisation and technological developments, including the increasingly important role of the internet in information exchange and as a marketplace.

Another new element of this report is the inclusion of an estimate of the size of Europe’s drug market. Calculations in this area are extremely challenging, and the approach used here has been a deliberately cautious one. Based on the available data, a minimum estimate is provided, noting that some consumption remains unknown and cannot at present be included. Even a minimum estimate in this area, however, represents a considerable financial sum. Additionally, it is hoped that the existence of a data-based estimate, with identified areas for future improvement, not only provides a useful and technically credible baseline for informing current policy discussions, but also represents an important step to inform the future work necessary to improve the estimates. The methodology of how these estimates have been derived can be found in a supporting technical report.

Part II of the report provides an analysis of the market for each of the main drug types, discussed in order according to their market share: cannabis; heroin and other opioids; cocaine; and then the synthetic drugs amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA together. The new psychoactive substances, being slightly different from the other substances considered here, are dealt with separately at the end of Part II. Discussion of each drug follows a similar structure, commencing with the key issues in brief, followed by a detailed analysis, and then finishing with action points. These chapters detail the specificities of the market for each substance, but also illustrate the links between the different market areas. This is a point of critical importance to successful policy formation, as actions targeting any specific substance risk being ineffective, or even counterproductive, if they do not take into account their possible wider ramifications for other aspects of the drug market.

Finally, in any action-orientated analysis it is also necessary to both recognise the importance of, and describe, existing policies, structures and activities that are currently targeting the market-related aspects of Europe’s drug problem and Part III of the report focuses on these. Here the relevant EU policies and legal, institutional and financial arrangements are described, as well as the actions and initiatives undertaken by the relevant bodies that play a role in their implementation. Many of these reflect the priorities and action points identified in the first EU drug markets report: a strategic analysis, emphasising the value that a strategic perspective can have in this area. Many of the issues described in that initial analysis remain important today and are further elaborated here. The 2016 analysis is, however, more grounded in published evidence, and the speed of development in this area has been so rapid that important new elements now need to be considered. Concrete examples of this include the role the internet is now playing with respect to drug supply and the continuing problems posed by the introduction of new psychoactive substances. These are two examples of issues that were addressed in 2013 but which have had to be significantly updated and revised for this report.

This report is accompanied by a Strategic Overview aimed at policymakers and covering the key points. This main report, in contrast, is intended as a more detailed reference document for professionals, practitioners and researchers working in the field of drug supply reduction. The routine data that support the analysis, as well as the studies that were commissioned to inform the analysis provided in this report, are published separately and are available online. The EMCDDA and Europol would like to acknowledge all who played a part in the production of the report. We are indebted to our colleagues at the European Commission and other EU bodies and also note in particular the specialist networks of experts working in this area across Europe, whose insights and advice have proved invaluable in informing the drafting of this report.

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