EU Drug Market: Cannabis — Key findings and threat assessment
This resource is part of EU Drug Market: Cannabis — In-depth analysis by the EMCDDA and Europol.
- Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in Europe. An estimated 84 million adults in the EU (aged 15-64) have used cannabis at least once in their lifetime, and 22.6 million in the last year. Overall, the cannabis market appears to be stable, although concerning developments have been observed in relation to production, consumer products and trafficking.
- The illicit cannabis retail market remains the largest drug market in the EU. The minimum estimated annual value of this market in the EU is EUR 11.4 billion. Herbal cannabis represents roughly 77 % of the market value (with an estimated value of at least EUR 8.8 billion, equivalent to about 1 028 tonnes), while cannabis resin accounts for close to 23 % (with an estimated value of at least EUR 2.6 billion, equivalent to about 362 tonnes)
- Most of the herbal cannabis detected in the EU appears to be cultivated in the EU. Countries of the Western Balkans remain a source of herbal cannabis, albeit to a lesser extent than in the past, and there are increasing signs that cannabis cultivation has expanded further to countries other than Albania.
- Spain is among the key EU countries where cannabis is illicitly produced, accounting for 75 % of the total number of cannabis plants seized in 2021. A number of large-scale cannabis cultivation sites have been dismantled in the country in recent years, highlighting changes in production methods and the entrenchment of a diverse range of criminal networks involved in the cannabis trade. Spain is also the key EU entry point for cannabis resin coming from Morocco, as seen in the large quantity of resin seized annually, amounting to more than 650 tonnes in 2021.
- In 2021, seized quantities of herbal cannabis and cannabis resin in the EU reached their highest levels in a decade, at 256 tonnes and 816 tonnes respectively. In addition, over 4.3 million cannabis plants were seized in the EU in 2021
- Morocco remains the largest supplier of cannabis resin to the European market. However, there are signals pointing to a potential increase in EU-based cannabis resin production, using locally grown cannabis and innovative methods. Although the quantities produced in Europe are likely much smaller than those smuggled from Morocco, this is an emerging threat requiring attention.
- Following a period of stability between 2012 and 2019, the number of cannabis resin seizures in the EU dropped by 73 % in 2020, likely due to the impact of COVID-19. The number of herbal cannabis seizures also decreased, although only by 16 %
- The potency of cannabis products has increased. Data indicates that the average potency of herbal cannabis in the EU rose by about 57 % between 2011 and 2021, while the average potency of cannabis resin increased by nearly 200 % in the same period.
- An increasing diversity of cannabis consumer products has emerged, including oils, edibles and vaping products. Some of these products have been found to be highly potent, containing over 90 % THC. Although it remains unclear where many of these products are manufactured, available information suggests that they are both trafficked from North America and produced within Europe.
- Several semi-synthetic cannabinoids (such as delta-8-THC and HHC) have also emerged on the EU market in the last few years. They appear to be made from naturally occurring cannabinoids, such as CBD, and are sold in a broad range of consumer product forms.
- Edible products containing highly potent synthetic cannabinoids pose a high risk to users’ health, and cases of fatal poisonings after the ingestion of sweets infused with synthetic cannabinoids have been recorded in the EU.
- The environmental impact of illicit cannabis production is considerable due to significant energy and water use, but also because of chemical pollution. Energy use accounts for the largest share of carbon dioxide emissions in the production process, and the carbon footprint of indoor cultivation has been estimated to be 16 to 100 times higher than outdoor cultivation. Much of the electricity used to cultivate cannabis indoors in the EU is stolen.
- Criminal networks involved in the illicit cannabis market in the EU are diverse, adaptable and flexible, and are often involved in trafficking multiple types of drugs. These networks exploit and may to a certain extent drive the high demand for cannabis in the EU and can be highly cooperative in terms of sharing resources and building partnerships.
- Violence, corruption and the misuse of legal business structures are key enablers of the criminal networks involved in the illicit cannabis market in Europe.
- A large share of the cases involving violence between criminals in recent years has been connected to the cannabis market. The diversity and the profitability of the business has led to violent confrontations between groups.
- Face-to-face transactions appear to remain the most common method for trading cannabis at the retail level, although there are indications that social media and other online methods are gaining importance. Increasingly, commercial marketing strategies are used to advertise and sell illicit cannabis consumer products in the EU.
- Globally and within some EU countries there is an ongoing policy debate around the cannabis market, with a number of regulatory and legal changes in the approaches taken to the drug’s regulation and control. This can result in considerable national and sometimes local heterogeneity in the approaches taken, potentially creating additional challenges for law enforcement and criminal justice systems.
Consult the list of references used in this module.