EU Drug Market: Heroin and other opioids — Key market data: heroin prices, purities and offences

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Wholesale heroin market trends: price and purity

Price and purity are key metrics of wholesale heroin markets. In the EU, wholesale purity data are not systematically reported, and this represents a key data gap. Nonetheless, based on the data available, wholesale purity appears to be stable or increasing in some countries. Also of note are detections of heroin hydrochloride, albeit in a limited number of wholesale markets in the EU, which imply heroin processing in or near the EU (see Box Chemical profiling provides insights into heroin available on EU drug markets).

Available data from eight EU Member States that consistently report wholesale price data to the EMCDDA show that the price has fallen over time. While there is variation among the reporting countries, between 2017 and 2021, the wholesale price of heroin fell by 18 %, from 29 213 to 24 099 EUR/kilogram (see Figure Wholesale average heroin price in eight EU countries, 2017-2021). This is of concern, as price reductions could lead to increased use, in terms of both the number of users and the amounts used by existing users. For a more comprehensive analysis, consistent purity data at wholesale level are needed.

Wholesale average heroin price in eight EU countries, 2017-2021

The source data for this graphic is available in the source table on this page.

Out of 1 407 listings identified on darknet markets in 2021 that purported to ship heroin from the EU, only a small proportion (1 %, 17 listings) were of wholesale quantities of 1 kilogram or more. In 15 of the 1-kilogram listings, the price ranged from EUR 13 500 to EUR 22 500. Two other listings were for 2 kilograms and 5 kilograms, advertised for EUR 42 000 and EUR 50 100, respectively. Such comparatively low prices on darknet markets suggest that the heroin may have been adulterated or that these are mislabelled or fraudulent listings

Price and purity of heroin at retail market level

In general, the retail price is viewed as a marker of availability relative to demand. However, in an illicit drug market, where there are no quality controls and where many users are dependent on drugs, the picture is more complex and the market may react in other ways to supply problems. For example, to maintain supply the price of heroin may be stable while the purity is reduced, and users may seek substitutes due to price or purity fluctuations, which may also be a driver of diversifying opioids on the market.

Among those countries that consistently report price and purity data, indexed trends indicate that the average purity of heroin rose by 38 % between 2011 and 2021, while its price dropped by 16 % (see Figure Indexed trends in heroin retail price and purity, EU, 2011-2021). However, the comparatively large increase in average heroin purity between 2011 and 2021 should be interpreted with some caution. In 2010/2011, several EU countries reported heroin shortages and dealers appeared to react by lowering the purity rather than changing the price. Therefore, 2011 represented an unusually low point for heroin purity. Between 2012 and 2014, purity levels rose, returning to those seen prior to the 2010/2011 shortages, and have remained relatively stable since. The slight decrease in purity since 2019 is probably due to supply disruption arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions.

In 2021, half of the countries that consistently report price and purity data reported a mean purity of heroin at retail level in the range 16-24 % and a mean price in the range EUR 24-45 per gram. However, price and purity varied widely, both within and between countries.

Indexed trends in heroin retail price and purity, EU, 2011-2021

The source data for this graphic is available in the source table on this page.

There are likely to be several factors, related to both supply and demand, that explain why heroin prices have been declining overall in Europe.

On the supply side, these include:

  • ample global production and supply, driven by sustained opium production in Afghanistan (see Section Production of opioids);
  • ever more consolidated and efficient supply chains, supported by new technologies (see Box Heroin retail listings on darknet markets);
  • relative ease of market entry for new players able to exploit (online) networking opportunities;
  • cheaper (online) distribution channels.

A number of demand factors are also exerting influence and potentially influencing prices:

  • an ageing population of heroin users;
  • a gradual decline in new heroin treatment entrants, suggesting a steadily declining number of new heroin users;
  • increased levels of opioid agonist treatment provision across Europe.

Heroin adulteration

Illicitly produced heroin is usually a mixture of diacetylmorphine or diamorphine, the active ingredient that produces the drug’s effects, with a variety of other ingredients. The amount of heroin produced and its purity are determined by factors including the alkaloid content of the raw opium, the methods used to extract morphine, the procedures used during acetylation, and the techniques used during the purification processes (see Section From poppy cultivation to heroin production). The end product can also contain opiate alkaloid impurities found in opium (such as codeine, morphine, thebaine, noscapine and papaverine), or chemicals used in the manufacturing process (such as acetic anhydride). There have also been cases of heroin contaminated with pathogens such as Clostridium novyi type A (McGuigan et al., 2002) and Bacillus anthracis (ECDC and EMCDDA, 2012a,b,c; HPA, 2010; HPS, 2011; Radun et al., 2010), causing outbreaks of bacterial infections.

In addition, adulterants and diluting agents are often added to increase volume and profits, but also to enhance the effects of the heroin or to relieve its unwanted effects, such as itchiness and pain from the injection. Adulterants and diluting agents can be sugars (dextrose, sucrose, lactose), starches (corn powder), local anaesthetics (procaine, lidocaine), antihistamines, stimulants (caffeine) or other substances (e.g. paracetamol, quinine) (Cunningham, 1984). In Europe, caffeine and paracetamol are the most commonly used adulterants found in heroin. Pre-mixed bags of these adulterants that are ready to be added to heroin have been seized by EU law enforcement agencies, indicating specialisation of criminal networks in preparing heroin adulteration mixtures for sale to traffickers (see Box Dutch criminal networks specialise in heroin cutting mixtures).

There is evidence to suggest that adulteration occurs along the heroin supply chain. For example, analysis of 659 heroin samples seized in Luxembourg between 2019 and 2020 at importation and street level provides evidence of adulteration with both paracetamol and caffeine at the importation level, followed by another step of adulteration, also with caffeine, at the level of retail dealers (Bourmaud et al., 2021).

None of the heroin samples from Luxembourg were reported to have been adulterated with fentanyl derivatives or other synthetic opioids (Bourmaud et al., 2021). However, recent non-systematic data indicate the potential adulteration of heroin with fentanyl and alpha-methylfentanyl (Spasov, 2023) and synthetic cannabinoids (EMCDDA, 2023c), and this has been linked to outbreaks of drug-related deaths in Varna, Bulgaria, and the northern area of Paris, France, respectively.

Heroin-related offences

Drug law offence statistics provide insights mainly on the implementation of drug laws. They are therefore influenced by factors that affect law enforcement activities, including registration and reporting practices. Based on these statistics, heroin offences represent around 4 % of all drug law offences reported in 2021 for which the drug is known (approximately 33 000 of 940 000 drug law offences).

Heroin offences declined by 48 % between 2011 and 2021 (from 62 800 to 32 920). The pattern broadly follows the overall decline in the number of heroin seizures (see Section Heroin trafficking within the EU). The proportion of overall heroin offences that were supply-related remained broadly stable, apart from an increase in 2017, from which point onward they remained stable at a new slightly higher level. While the reason for this increase is not entirely clear, it may have been influenced by changes in reporting (see Figure Heroin-related offences in the EU, 2011-2021). As with drug seizures, the recording and reporting of drug law offences data are influenced by a range of economic, political and institutional factors.

Heroin-related offences in the EU, 2011-2021

The source data for this graphic is available in the source table on this page.

Source data

Wholesale average heroin price in eight EU countries, 2017-2021
Year 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
EUR/kg 29212.57444 26540.13222 24806.35 24855.72111 24099.27889
Indexed trends in heroin retail price and purity, EU, 2011-2021
  2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Price 100 102 97 92 95 96 94 92 85 90 84
Purity 100 101 120 147 145 137 137 142 154 144 138
Heroin-related offences in the EU, 2011-2021
Type of offence Heroin use-related offences Heroin supply-related offences Other heroin-related offences
2011 38330 16530 7940
2012 31490 14200 4770
2013 29460 12030 5800
2014 30170 12570 5400
2015 31460 11680 5140
2016 29670 11650 6080
2017 23070 11070 270
2018 23590 10350 520
2019 22710 10520 110
2020 22020 10340 120
2021 23170 9640 110


Consult the list of references used in this module.