Cocaine reached highest purity in a decade according to the latest European Drug Report

The European Drug Report 2018: Trends and Developments launched on 7 June in Brussels by Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos and the Director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) Alexis Goosdeel, offers a comprehensive view of the latest drug trends across Europe.

Cocaine: increased availability and highest purity in a decade

The Report indicates an increase in cocaine production in South America, bringing both increased risk of health problems for users and more complex challenges for law enforcement. Emerging evidence of increased availability and use of crack cocaine in Europe is considered a cause for concern.

The Report has found that although the price of cocaine had remained stable, its purity at street level in 2016 reached its peak in a decade. The number of cocaine seizures has also increased, with some 98 000 seizures reported in the EU in 2016 (90 000 in 2015), amounting to 70.9 tonnes. The seizures have revealed a shift in the trafficking routes from the Iberian Peninsula – historically the main entry point for maritime shipment of cocaine into Europe – to Belgium. With seizures of around 30 tonnes of cocaine, accounting for 43% of the estimated EU total in 2016, Belgium displaced Spain as the country reporting the highest annual seizures of the drug.

In addition, reported seizures of 79 kg of coca paste in Spain and a further 7 kg in Italy suggest the existence of laboratories producing cocaine hydrochloride in Europe. This development indicates a change in production tactics, as previously most of the cocaine laboratories found in Europe have been ‘secondary extraction facilities’.

The Report found that an estimated 3.5 million people used cocaine last year. Pointing out to a recent study of drug residues in municipal wastewater the report revealed that, between 2015 and 2017, there was an increase in cocaine residues in 26 of the 31 cities with data for that period. The highest traces were recorded in cities in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK, with low levels reported in the eastern European cities studied. As reported, cocaine is the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe. It is estimated that 17million European adults (aged 15–64), or 5.1 % of this age group, have tried cocaine during their lives. Among these about 2.3 million young adults aged 15 to 34 (1.9 % of this age group) have used the drug in the last year.

Health implications of cocaine use are becoming a concern as the Report highlights an increase in the number of first-time admissions to specialised treatment relating to cocaine. Overall, cocaine was cited as the primary drug by more than 67 000 clients entering specialised drug treatment in 2016 and by around 30 000 first-time clients. After a period of decline, the overall number of cocaine first-time treatment entrants increased by over a fifth between 2014 and 2016.

Signs of increased drug production inside Europe

Europe is an important market for illicit drugs, trafficked in from several world regions, including Latin America, West Asia and North Africa but the report states there are worrying signs of increased drug production inside Europe.

Several examples of increased drug production inside Europe and innovation in production methods are noted in the report. These include evidence of: illicit laboratories processing cocaine; an increase in the number of MDMA laboratories dismantled; the scaling up of, and greater organised crime involvement in, methamphetamine production; the final phases of amphetamine production taking place in the country of consumption; and, a small number of heroin production laboratories detected. Some of the synthetic drugs produced in the EU are destined for external markets such as the Americas, Australia, the Middle and Far East and Turkey.

Increased production of high potency cannabis within Europe appears to have impacted on the activities of cannabis producers located outside of the EU, as seen by the higher potency of cannabis resin trafficked into Europe from Morocco. There are also signs that NPS, commonly produced in China and shipped to Europe for packaging, are sometimes manufactured within European borders.

Other main findings

The Report further details other relevant findings and topics, namely: the high use and availability of cannabis in Europe, the decrease of new NPS detected, the role of prisons for addressing healthcare needs for drug users, the growing importance of the online market and the rising numbers of deaths for overdose in Europe.