EU Drug Market: Heroin and other opioids — Key findings and threat assessment

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  • Heroin and other opioids contribute significantly to the harms of illicit drug use in the EU, with opioids, including heroin, detected in 74 % of fatal overdoses reported in 2021.
  • In 2021, there were an estimated 1 million high-risk opioid users (aged 15 to 64) in the EU.
  • The opioid market is increasingly complex, including diverted medicines and internationally controlled and new synthetic opioids from a range of sources. Methadone, buprenorphine, fentanyl and its derivatives and new highly potent synthetic opioids have become more visible in data on health outcomes. In 2021, six new synthetic opioids were reported for the first time to the EU Early Warning System on new psychoactive substances, of which three were benzimidazoles and three were classed as other opioids.
  • The minimum estimated annual retail value of the heroin market in the EU is EUR 5.2 billion (ranging from EUR 4.1 billion to EUR 6.7 billion). Estimates of amounts used suggest that about 124 tonnes of heroin (ranging from 96.9 tonnes to 154.7 tonnes) at retail-level purity was consumed in the EU in 2021.
  • In 2021, over 9.5 tonnes of heroin was seized in the EU. This is the highest amount seized in 20 years, with large individual consignments detected at seaports. In addition, Türkiye seized a record 22.2 tonnes of heroin in 2021, although preliminary data for 2022 indicate a significant reduction to around 8 tonnes.
  • Between 2011 and 2021, despite a doubling in seized heroin quantities, retail prices fell steadily while purity increased. Indexed trends show a 38 % rise in average heroin purity and a 16 % drop in price, suggesting a stable heroin supply in many European countries.
  • Afghanistan is the main source of the heroin consumed in Europe. Recent developments in the country’s political and security situation, including the domestic drugs trade, may have important implications for Europe. Following a prolonged period of high opium production, available data suggest there has been a significant reduction in opium poppy cultivation in 2023.
  • While it will take time for the developments in Afghanistan to impact on Europe, a decrease in heroin availability could lead to market gaps being filled by potent synthetic opioids, with significant negative impacts on public health and security. The presence of Mexican criminal networks in the EU, albeit limited at present, further substantiates this potential threat.
  • Traffickers employ a range of evolving tactics to evade interdiction, including combining sections of multiple sea and land routes, as well as transhipment points in and outside the EU, to conceal the origin and nature of heroin consignments. This makes it harder for law enforcement to detect shipments and disrupt trafficking flows.
  • Heroin trafficking to the EU increasingly relies on maritime routes and in particular, the use of global container traffic. Containerised transport allows larger quantities of heroin to be smuggled in single shipments. Several factors may have influenced this shift, probably related to the level of perceived risk and potential profit.
  • Key transhipment points for heroin smuggled in maritime containers are located in countries in the Arabian Peninsula, eastern and southern Africa, and Iran, Pakistan and Türkiye.
  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a major transhipment point for heroin, as well as being a key hub for money laundering and criminal coordination.
  • The Balkan route remains an active corridor for heroin trafficking into the EU, although it appears to be shifting southward, exploiting maritime routes, after some disruption to the overland section between Türkiye and Bulgaria. Trafficking organisations have targeted a number of European ports with direct links to Türkiye, and there is a threat that other ports may be targeted in future.
  • Heroin trafficking on the Southern route to the EU appears to be increasing. This can be seen in the large quantities of heroin departing from ports on the Iranian or Pakistani sections of the Makran Coast. This is likely to be driven by increased use of maritime containers, the ability to use multiple transhipment points to conceal the consignment’s origin, and perceived or actual stricter border controls on the Balkan route. Heroin trafficking from countries in Africa to Europe via air couriers and air freight also continues to be a threat.
  • Based on seizure data, the use of the Northern and Caucasus trafficking routes appears to be continuing. However, Russia’s war on Ukraine has contributed to changing trafficking routes, with some reports indicating that criminal networks are seeking alternatives to trafficking routes through Ukraine.
  • Along with China, Europe continues to be a source of acetic anhydride for heroin production in Afghanistan. Trafficking of this precursor continues from the EU on the ‘reverse’ Balkan route via Türkiye. However, significantly less acetic anhydride was reported to have been seized in Europe in 2020 and 2021 than during the peak in 2019.
  • Turkish criminal networks continue to dominate the wholesale trafficking of heroin to the European market. However, a multitude of other networks facilitating heroin trafficking are also active, including groups originating from or linked to the Western Balkan region.
  • Networks and individuals orchestrating large-scale heroin consignments to the EU rely on cooperation with suppliers in the main production region and with partners in key distribution hubs in the EU. They facilitate trafficking operations through a vast network of collaborators, spread along the trafficking routes, some of which provide logistical and other criminal services for a fee.
  • Criminal networks trafficking heroin to the EU operate through the exploitation of legally established, acquired or infiltrated companies along the trafficking routes. Such business structures aim to provide legitimacy to their criminal activities, including the concealment, movement and storage of heroin.
  • Violence associated with the EU heroin market is relatively uncommon, largely due to the stability of the market and cooperation between criminal networks. However, the potential for a sudden escalation in violence exists, primarily driven by disruptions in the heroin market or a surge in the synthetic opioids market, which can lead to increased competition or territorial conflicts among criminal organisations.


Consult the list of references used in this module.