Cocaine retail markets: multiple indicators suggest continued growth and diversification
This resource is part of EU Drug Market: Cocaine — In-depth analysis by the EMCDDA and Europol.
Last update: 6 May 2022
Most indicators continue to suggest that cocaine availability on European consumer markets remains at historically high levels and that the markets continue to expand across Europe. While most cocaine consumers remain concentrated in a limited number of western and southern European countries, whose markets appear to be continuing to expand, there are also indications that cocaine retail markets continue to grow in northern and eastern Europe. Smaller markets for more harmful, freebase forms of the drug, often referred to as ‘crack’, remain concentrated in western Europe. However, there are also indications that these markets are growing and are emerging in countries where they were not observed before.
Retail markets for cocaine hydrochloride powders
New indicator suggests cocaine is now more affordable
Affordability of drugs is a measure that incorporates drug purity and accounts for differing national economic conditions as quantified in the price level indices (PLI) (for fuller details and limitations, see Groshkova et al., 2018). In other words, affordability reflects what 1 gram of a pure, ‘uncut’ drug costs to buyers in the context of their national standard of living. Affordability allows a more sophisticated comparison of retail drug markets across countries and over time. Based on EMCDDA retail price and purity data for 16 European countries reporting sufficient information, and which together make up approximately 60 % of the total EU population, 1 gram of cocaine became on average 38 % more affordable between 2015 and 2020 (see Figure Changes in average affordability of cocaine in a group of 16 EU Member States).
|Average affordability (EUR/g)||267.2||203||176.3||175.3||168.1||165.2|
This finding is in line with trends noted in other indicators of retail markets such as retail prices and purity, estimated prevalence of drug use, wastewater analysis and numbers of cocaine seizures, which all suggest a further increase in cocaine availability since the last edition of this report (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019). It should also be noted that cocaine affordability in Europe does not appear to have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated measures restricting movement in Europe, as it remained stable or slightly increased in 2020 (see Figure Changes in average affordability of cocaine in a group of 16 EU Member States).
Price remains stable while purity increases
The purity of cocaine at the retail level has been increasing in Europe since 2010, and in 2019 it reached its highest level in the last decade, although adulteration continues to take place (see Box Recent trends in cocaine adulteration). Overall, the retail price of the drug remained stable between 2010 and 2020. This appears to confirm the trend, identified in the previous edition of this report, that more cocaine is now available on European retail markets than before (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic does not seem to have impacted retail prices or the increase in purity recorded since 2010 in significant ways, even if a slight increase in price and a stabilisation of purity can be observed in 2020 (see Figure Indexed trends in cocaine retail price and purity).
This is likely due to an increase in the availability of high-purity cocaine at the wholesale level (see Box Profiling European cocaine) and to competition between the numerous criminal networks involved at the various levels of the cocaine market (see Cocaine: increasingly attractive for a wider range of criminal networks). The increasing production of cocaine hydrochloride in Europe may also have played a role (see Section Manufacturing cocaine: new developments highlight larger European role in global production).
Signals of continued growth of cocaine consumer markets
In Europe, the retail market for cocaine has historically been concentrated in the western and southern parts of the continent. This is where most of the drug first enters the EU, and they are the most populated and wealthiest regions of Europe. Data on prevalence of cocaine use, expressed in estimated numbers of users during the last year, may be viewed as an indicator of the location and approximate size of retail markets, with the latest available data signalling that the largest retail markets continue to be located in western and southern Europe. Specifically, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, which together represent more than 61 % of the total EU population (Eurostat, 2020), account for about 77 % of Europe’s estimated 3.5 million last year cocaine users (in the age group 15-64) in 2021. Two Nordic countries, Denmark and Sweden, follow these countries, but report much lower estimated numbers of users. Meanwhile, the available data indicate that Poland may be the largest cocaine market in eastern Europe. However, due to a lack of recent general population survey data from some countries in this part of Europe, this may not be the case.
While western and southern Europe remain the main markets, signs such as cocaine consumption becoming more common in cities in eastern Europe suggest that the cocaine retail market is also developing in other regions (EMCDDA, 2021). Recent trends based on data from 15 countries that have conducted surveys on last year cocaine use since 2019 indicate that levels of use are increasing in 8 countries, remaining stable in 5 and decreasing in 2 (EMCDDA, 2022a). While an overall decrease in cocaine use was visible in 2020, likely due to COVID-19 and the restrictions imposed on social gatherings and the nightlife scene, there are indications of recovery in 2021 and overall signals that the cocaine retail market continues to expand.
Wastewater information provides some details on the characteristics of European cocaine retail markets (see Overview of data and methods). Likely due to a temporary reduction in cocaine use during the initial lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic, data on cocaine residues (namely the benzoylecgonine cocaine metabolite) in municipal wastewater showed a decrease in the majority of cities in 2020 compared to 2019 (EMCDDA, 2021). However, in 2021 an increase in cocaine residues was observed in 32 out of 58 cities compared to 2020, with 12 reporting no change and 14 reporting a decrease (EMCDDA, 2022a). Furthermore, wastewater data from 12 European cities covering the period 2011-2021 show increasing longer-term trends. While this cannot be readily interpreted as an increase in the number of cocaine users, although this is a possible explanation, other factors could have caused this increase in metabolites. Higher concentrations of metabolites could mean that the same number of people used more cocaine, or they could reflect the increased purity of cocaine found on European retail markets. A combination of these three causes could also be an explanation.
Treatment data can also provide some insight into the drug retail trade. Between 2014-2020, first-time entries to specialised drug treatment for cocaine problems increased in 14 countries (EDR 2022). Overall, new entries to treatment for problems associated with cocaine use have increased in Europe since 2015.
Trends in cocaine seizures: remaining at historical highs but impacted by COVID-19
Trends in numbers of drug seizures may be viewed as an indirect indicator of changes in a drug’s availability at the retail level, although they primarily reflect law enforcement activity and the factors affecting it (such as resource availability and allocation, and priorities), so caution is needed when interpreting such data. Most of the drug seizures reported in Europe are of small amounts of under 10 grams, likely confiscated on retail markets. In 2020, an estimated 84 % of the 56 000 cocaine seizures reported by the 17 EU Member States that provided a breakdown by market levels (wholesale, middle market, retail) were carried out at the retail level.
Overall, the number of cocaine seizures recorded in the EU, Norway and Turkey appears to have been impacted strongly by the measures adopted against COVID-19. The 68 000 individual seizures reported in 2020 represent an estimated 32 % decrease compared to 2019 (see Figure Indexed trend in the number of cocaine seizures reported in the EU, Turkey and Norway). Out of the 26 countries with sufficient data, only Bulgaria and Greece, which report comparatively small numbers of cocaine seizures, did not report a decrease between 2019 and 2020.
This reduction in seizures is most probably due to the pandemic’s combined effects on levels and patterns of cocaine use and on the enforcement of drug laws at the consumer level. Indeed, as already mentioned, lockdowns across Europe impacted on levels of cocaine use, and it is also probable that less police time and resources were focused on enforcing drug laws at retail level in 2020, since many officers were mobilised in the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.
However, the impact of COVID-19 on European retail markets for cocaine in 2020 should not obscure the steady increase in the number of cocaine seizures observed between 2015 and 2019, a general trend which, put in the context of the other indicators reviewed in this report, may have only been temporarily interrupted by the effects of COVID-19. In this respect, it will be important to continue monitoring numbers of cocaine seizures in Europe in the future.
The country reporting the largest estimated number of cocaine seizures in 2020 (and in previous years) is Spain (35 240) followed by Italy (7 858), Belgium (5 354), and Sweden (4 204). However, it must be noted that 2020 data are not available for several countries usually reporting large numbers of seizures. The countries reporting the highest numbers of seizures also report some of the highest estimated numbers of cocaine users. It should be noted that the Netherlands, one of the top retail markets in terms of numbers of cocaine users, does not report numbers of drug seizures and as a result is not included in this analysis.
Trends in numbers of seizures (and other indicators) presented in the 2019 edition of the EU Drug Markets Report (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019) suggested that the largest cocaine retail markets of western and southern Europe continued growing, while other markets were emerging or expanding in eastern Europe and in the Nordic countries. New seizure data broadly confirm that these trends continued until the shock caused by COVID-19 in 2020.
East European countries generally report much lower numbers than the rest of Europe, reaching a few hundred cocaine seizures annually at the most. However, their numbers also increased overall by more than 200 % between 2010 and 2019 (130 % between 2010 and 2020), indicating retail market expansion (see Figure Indexed trends in numbers of cocaine seizures in 11 Eastern EU countries and Turkey). Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia all reported more cocaine seizures in 2019 and 2020 than in 2010. Seven countries (Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia) reported record numbers of cocaine seizures in 2019. Poland, mentioned earlier as potentially eastern Europe’s largest consumer market, reported only six seizures of cocaine in 2020. However, data from the police are not available, so this may not reflect the true level.
|Eastern EU countries||100||91||115||96||111||132||164||206||247||303||230|
Furthermore, Turkey reported 3 018 cocaine seizures in 2019, seven times the number reported in 2009 and the seventh largest number of cocaine seizures in Europe that year. Although the number of Turkish seizures started declining after the 2017 peak of 3 829, it remains at significantly higher levels than in the mid-2010s, continuing to suggest that a sizeable cocaine retail market exists in Turkey (see Figure Indexed trends in numbers of cocaine seizures in 11 Eastern EU countries and Turkey).
Sweden is another example of potential retail market expansion, with the number of cocaine seizures increasing by a dramatic 481 % between 2010 and 2020 (or 515 % between 2010 and 2019) when it reported a record 4 450 cocaine seizures to the EMCDDA (see Figure Indexed trends in numbers of cocaine seizures in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway). Similarly, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian seizures were more numerous in 2019 and 2020 than in 2010. Denmark and Finland, like Sweden, broke records in 2019, before the pandemic hit Europe.
Retail markets for cocaine freebase products
Historically, small freebase cocaine markets have existed in a few western and southern European countries including Germany, Spain, France, Italy and the Netherlands. The available information indicates that use of freebase cocaine in eastern and northern Europe continues to be very limited.
Although there is little doubt that the European market for smokeable freebase products is much smaller than the market for hydrochloride powders, it is difficult to monitor and the data available at present are unlikely to reflect its true dimension. An estimate of the number of freebase cocaine users in mainland France indicates that it more than quadrupled between 2010 (10 000) and 2019 (42 800) (Cadet-Taïrou et al., 2021; Janssen et al., 2020). Should the other main freebase cocaine markets in Europe have experienced a similar increase in the number of users over this time period, of which there are some indications, then there would potentially be over 100 000 freebase cocaine users in Europe.
An important distinction between the two cocaine markets is that while cocaine powders are invariably bought from dealers, the freebase market involves products that are either manufactured by the users themselves (from purchased powders) or purchased as crack from dealers. Based on the available evidence, it is difficult to estimate which of these two types of products is the most prominent, but basification for own use (i.e. the processing of purchased cocaine powder into freebase by the user) may be significant and increasing. Those who manufacture their own freebase products may not identify themselves as crack users but as cocaine users, which may lead to an underestimation of the number of freebase cocaine users in Europe (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019). Thus, for a number of reasons, it is likely that the European market for freebase cocaine products is both underestimated and under-documented. Caution is therefore required when interpreting the available data.
Freebase cocaine is primarily smoked, but some users inject it. In some countries such as France and Portugal, low-threshold facilities report that injection of freebase is not infrequent. Freebase users appear to predominantly belong to vulnerable high-risk populations, and are often also current or former users of opioids. Migrants from Africa and east European countries are reported to make up a sizeable proportion of freebase cocaine users in some EU Member States. There are also indications of cocaine freebase use among some recreational drug users in France and Italy, which suggest that use is spreading to a new customer base.
Only a handful of countries report the number of crack cocaine seizures consistently, and as a result it is difficult to distinguish trends. Nevertheless, it would appear that since the last edition of this report (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019), seizures have continued to be relatively stable and low in both numbers and quantities among the reporting countries.
However, other datasets suggest that in recent years, some long-standing freebase markets may have grown, although they remain small, while new markets seem to have emerged in countries where they previously were not observed, resulting in an increase in Europe as a whole. For example, the overall number of people seeking treatment for problems with crack use tripled between 2016 and 2020, when 7 000 people entered treatment. Notable increases were observed in countries with long-standing markets, such as Spain, France and Italy, but also in others including Belgium, Ireland and Portugal. Crack use was also reported in some German cities where it was rarely observed in the past.
Similar trends emerge from other datasets. For instance, low-threshold services in Brussels, Lisbon and some areas of Ireland and Italy reported a significant increase in the number of crack users among their clients in 2020. In addition, wastewater analysis performed in 13 cities of six western European countries in 2021 found freebase residues in all cities and during all sampling days, indicating daily use (EMCDDA, 2022b). The highest loads were encountered in Amsterdam and Antwerp, that is, in cities located in countries identified as major entry points for wholesale cocaine shipments to the EU (see Section Exploitation of global logistics: European and Latin American ports).
Cocaine freebase markets often entail serious consequences in terms of public health and security, and can be particularly challenging to deal with for the public services concerned. Dependence on crack cocaine is characterised by high-frequency use, serious mental and physical health problems, and aggression. Notable harms associated with cocaine freebase use in Europe include intimidation, violence and forced prostitution, and it frequently leads individuals to financial ruin.
At the global level, and particularly in South America, a bigger range of smokeable cocaine products are available to consumers than in Europe. The majority are made from the intermediary products, coca paste and cocaine base, that are formed during the manufacture of cocaine hydrochloride from coca leaves (see Figure The cocaine production process and the different cocaine products). These are smuggled in wholesale amounts within and across borders from production areas in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. In some South American countries, especially the three main cocaine-producing countries, there is evidence to suggest that markets for smokeable products are larger than those for powder cocaine (UNODC, 2021e). As already mentioned, the availability in Europe of large quantities of coca paste and cocaine base creates a risk that new smokeable cocaine consumer products similar to those available in South America could emerge on the European market in the future (see Section Manufacturing cocaine: new developments highlight larger European role in global production).
How cocaine is retailed in Europe
Compared to other aspects of the cocaine market, there is limited systematic information available on the methods used to retail cocaine directly to consumers in Europe. Overall, the nature of the connections between the players active at different levels of the market — importation, wholesale distribution, mid-market distribution and retail sales — is generally poorly documented. Until more and better data are systematically collected on these aspects, it will be difficult to paint a comprehensive picture of how the cocaine retail market operates in Europe. That said, like the diversification of the criminal networks involved in the importation and distribution of cocaine in Europe analysed earlier (see Cocaine: increasingly attractive for a wider range of criminal networks), some evidence exists to show that retail markets have seen the emergence of new players and are becoming more diverse, in terms of where and how they operate. While the traditional view remains that most sales to users are likely conducted in public or semi-public settings, such as on ‘the street’ or, where they exist, in open drug markets, the emergence of new technologies, such as semi-private encrypted communication applications, internet-based platforms such as darknet markets, and the use of social media platforms, are likely key factors in the diversification of cocaine retail markets.
Buying cocaine: face-to-face still the preferred method, but social media and messaging apps increasingly used
While research on the cocaine retail trade is limited, it is generally thought that face-to-face methods for buying and delivering cocaine to consumers is most common. However, data collected through novel methods and on internet-based platforms have provided some insights into the market and how it may be changing. The diversification of the cocaine retail market has potentially been influenced by, among other things, the direct delivery to consumers of small amounts of cocaine purchased through the darknet. There is relatively good data on darknet markets, which have provided insights into estimated sales volumes, for example. Based on such data, cocaine has been estimated to be one of the drugs that generates the highest revenues for dealers operating in anonymised darknet markets. While darknet markets have been a relatively important source of supply for European cocaine consumers, there are indications that they are losing ground as a method for retailing cocaine and other drugs (Groshkova et al., 2022).
Research and analysis also suggest that public social media platforms and encrypted communication tools are commonly and potentially increasingly used across Europe for mid-level and retail cocaine trafficking. In Sweden, for example, ongoing research has found that the retail drugs trade has moved increasingly to social media platforms (Bloem and Svederborn, 2021), with one study finding that cocaine is offered in smaller quantities on Facebook compared to one of the largest Swedish cryptomarkets, namely Flugsvamp 2.0 (Moeller et al., 2021).
Web-based surveys can also be a quick and inexpensive tool for collecting information from relatively large numbers of people who use drugs. While their results cannot be generalised to the population as a whole, or indeed to all people who use drugs, they can paint a detailed and timely picture of drug consumption and purchasing patterns and are a useful complement to traditional data-collection methods. One such survey is the European Web Survey on Drugs (EWSD), which since 2016 has supported the EMCDDA and national decision-makers in gathering in-depth data on the drug situation in Europe.
Across the 21 EU countries and Switzerland that were covered in the 2021 round of the EWSD, 16 266 respondents (33 %) reported the use of cocaine. A smaller proportion of these respondents provided detailed information enabling further analysis of how cocaine is retailed in Europe.
The EWSD found that the majority of respondents who answered questions related to how they usually bought cocaine powder, and how it was usually delivered to them (N = 5 599), bought cocaine directly from a dealer in-person, via phone, mail or text message (84 %, see Figure In the last 12 months, how did you usually buy cocaine powder? ). However, a number of respondents also reported using social media (8 %) and the darknet (7 %), further supporting the developments observed in other research related to the growth of internet-based methods for purchasing cocaine. Interestingly, the use of these methods differed between countries. For example, buying the drugs directly from a dealer ranged from 96 % in Bulgaria to 69 % in Latvia, and the use of the darknet ranged from about 20 % in Sweden and Finland to 2 % in Ireland and several other countries. The use of social media stood out in Ireland and Sweden, at 13 %. While this indicates that some methods of purchase are more common in some countries than others, indicating that the retail markets may differ somewhat across Europe, it should be stressed that sample sizes were very small in several countries.
|I directly contact my source/dealer (in person, via phone, mail, or text message)||84|
|I find the source on social media (such as Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram)||8|
|On an encrypted internet market/darknet (e.g. using Tor or another browser)||7|
|In a shop on surface internet||1|
The Figure In the last 12 months, how was the cocaine powder usually delivered to you? shows that more than three quarters of respondents reported meeting their dealer outside as the usual delivery method, followed by home deliveries (27 %). It was more common for respondents to report that the cocaine powder was delivered to a drop-off location without any contact (6 %) than receiving the drug through the regular postal service (4 %). Similarly, the use of delivery methods greatly differs between countries, again suggesting differences among European countries. For instance, postal services were more frequently used in Sweden (13 %), while home deliveries were most common in Switzerland (39 %); however, it is again important to note the small sample sizes in some countries.
|I met my source/dealer outside||76|
|Home (in person) delivery||27|
|I picked it up without any personal contact (from arranged location)||6|
Early analysis on the impact of the pandemic on EU drug markets indicated that the effects of COVID-19 restrictions appeared to be more noticeable at the retail level than at the wholesale level. Although large quantities of cocaine were available in Europe, the logistics of transporting smaller batches, including retail quantities, were more difficult to orchestrate. New modi operandi observed in some EU Member States indicated that some dealers quickly adapted to new challenges. For instance, seizures of drugs from people disguised as key workers have been widely reported (Daly, 2020; EMCDDA and Europol, 2020). It is too early to tell whether the pandemic will have any lasting effects on the retail trade for cocaine in Europe. It will be important to continue monitoring these aspects in the coming years.
Darknet markets: losing ground but still active
Based on 2020 data from 14 darknet markets (Agartha Market, White House Market, DarkMarket, Versus Market, DarkBay Market, Square, Icarus Market, ASAP Market, Cypher Market, BitBazaar, Monopoly, Empire Market, Europa and Apollon Market), a total of 10 832 listings (sale offers) were detected of cocaine in hydrochloride (powder) and freebase (crack) forms purporting to ship from an EU country. Of these, 90 (1 %) of the listings were for crack. Although caution is needed in interpreting these data, the number of listings provides a useful indicator of the scale of activity on darknet markets.
The available data suggest that the majority of powder cocaine sale listings during 2020 originated from Germany (37 %), France (15 %) and the Netherlands (13 %). Other reported EU Member States of origin included Sweden (7 %), Belgium, Italy and Spain (4 % each). An additional 16 % of cocaine listings were offering shipping from various other EU countries, Norway and Turkey (see Figure Proportion of powder cocaine listings on major darknet markets by EU Member States, Norway and Turkey, 2020).
For crack, a different picture emerges, with the majority of listings purporting to ship from the Netherlands (76 %), followed by Germany (9 %). Several other EU countries featured as shipping origin, and an additional 10 % of crack listings purported to ship from an unspecified country in Europe.
Compared with data from previous monitoring periods, when the origin of cocaine offered on darknet markets was limited to a few EU Member States (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019), the current data show considerable diversification, with cocaine now apparently being shipped from every corner of the EU.
The typical quantity (most frequently observed value) of cocaine powder offered was 10 grams (1 371 listings), followed by 20 grams (1 031). The typical price per gram was consistently EUR 60 per gram, up to 50 grams, at which point a bulk discount was evident — listings of 50 grams and 100 grams were typically offered at EUR 50 per gram. The typical quantity of crack offered was 1 gram (14 listings), followed by 0.5 grams (11), 5 grams and 10 grams (10 each) and 2 grams (9).
There were 256 listings of 1 kilogram or more (cocaine powder). In 201 listings of 1 kilogram, the typical price was EUR 42 000 (minimum EUR 16 660, maximum EUR 49 000). There were 47 listings for 2 kilograms; one listing each for 2.5 kilograms, 5 kilograms, 10 kilograms, 15 kilograms, 20 kilograms and 30 kilograms; and two listings for 50 kilograms. However, price data were not available for these quantities. The Netherlands and Germany together accounted for over half of the listings of bulk quantities (see Figure Proportion of bulk cocaine listings on major darknet markets shipping from EU countries).
|Other EU countries||15|
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