EU Drug Market: Amphetamine — Introduction

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Amphetamine is the most common synthetic stimulant drug available on the European drug market. It is part of the phenethylamine family of drugs, which also includes methamphetamine and MDMA (see Figure Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA are from the same chemical family), and competes with cocaine and a range of new psychoactive substances (some of which are also phenethylamines) for a share of the profitable European Union (EU) stimulant drug market. The prevalence of amphetamine use is higher than methamphetamine in most EU Member States, with notable exceptions, such as Czechia and Slovakia. In some datasets it is not possible to distinguish between the two substances, in which case the term ‘amphetamines’ is used. For example, surveys that group amphetamine and methamphetamine together, conducted by 25 EU countries between 2016 and 2022 suggest that 1.3 million young adults (15 to 34) used amphetamines during the last year (1.3 % of this age group).

Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA are from the same chemical family
Diagram showing the basic chemical structure of phenethylamine, and the modifications to it which lead to amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA.

Amphetamine exists in two chemical forms, base and salt. The pure base is a clear, colourless oil that is insoluble in water and can easily be converted into the most common salt form on the European market, amphetamine sulfate. It also exists in two chiral forms (where the arrangement of atoms in the molecule are slightly different), one of which is more potent than the other (see Box ‘Chiral forms of amphetamine’). Amphetamine sulfate is a white or off-white powder that is soluble in water.

In this analysis, ‘amphetamine’ refers to amphetamine sulfate, unless otherwise specified. Illicit amphetamine products mostly consist of powders or pastes, usually mixed with other ingredients, such as lactose, dextrose or caffeine, but tablets containing amphetamine are also available and may carry logos similar to those seen on ecstasy tablets or alternatively the Captagon logo (see Figure Amphetamine tablets with the Captagon logo). The paste form is simply a powder mixed with alcohol to give it the appearance of being recently produced.

Amphetamine may be ingested, snorted or, less commonly, injected (after dissolving). Unlike the hydrochloride salt of methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, amphetamine sulfate is not sufficiently volatile to be smoked.

Amphetamine tablets with the Captagon® logo
Photograph showing front and back faces and side profile view of a captagon tablet, with a millimetre scale for size reference.

Source: Department of Identification and Forensic Science, Israel Police.

The demand for amphetamine in the EU is met by European production concentrated largely in the Netherlands and Belgium, where production is complex, large-scale and based on the drug precursor BMK (benzyl methyl ketone, also known as P-2-P). BMK has some limited use in industry and can be diverted from legitimate sources or smuggled into the EU, but more frequently it is made from chemicals known as designer precursors (1) imported from China. Illicit amphetamine production laboratories are also found in Germany, Poland and Bulgaria – although less frequently – and occasionally in other EU Member States. The conversion of amphetamine oil to amphetamine sulfate has been reported by a wider group of countries and it seems that it is easier to have the base oil trafficked from the Netherlands and Belgium for conversion rather than perform the full production process. Some of the amphetamine produced in the EU is used to produce captagon tablets, which are mainly trafficked to consumer markets in the Middle East.

From survey data collected by 25 EU countries between 2016 and 2022, it is estimated that 1.3 million adults (aged 15-34, or 1.3 % of this age group) have tried amphetamine or methamphetamine during the last year. Of the 11 European countries that have conducted surveys since 2020, one reported higher estimates of use than their previous comparable study, nine reported a stable trend and one a lower estimate.

Long-term, chronic and injecting amphetamine use has, historically, been most evident in northern European countries. Injecting is a common route of administration of amphetamine in some countries, including Finland, Norway, Poland and Sweden. More than 10 000 clients entering specialised drug treatment in Europe in 2021 reported amphetamine as their primary drug, of whom 5 000 of which were first-time clients. Sniffing was the most common route of administration, reported by 70 %, while 15 % reported oral consumption, 8 % smoking or inhaling and 7 % injecting.

The estimated annual value of the retail market for amphetamine in the EU is at least EUR 1.1 billion, with a range of EUR 0.9 billion to EUR 1.4 billion. Estimates of amounts used suggest that about 90 tonnes of amphetamine and methamphetamine combined (likely range: 70 to 107 tonnes) were consumed in the EU in 2021, with frequent users thought to consume approximately 97 % of the total amount (87 tonnes).

(1) A designer precursor is a close chemical relative of a controlled precursor that is purpose-made to circumvent controls; it usually does not have any recognised legitimate use and is not widely traded. Designer precursors include pre-precursors and masked precursors.

References

Consult the list of references used in this resource.


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