Growing threats posed by new and established substances highlighted by latest European Drug Report

Availability of cocaine may be rising again in parts of Europe according to the European Drug Report 2017: Trends and Developments, launched on 6 June by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). In addition, the EU drugs agency annual overview highlights the increasing number of drug overdose deaths in Europe, the continued availability of new psychoactive substances and the growing health threat of highly potent synthetic opioids. Developments in cannabis policies and substance use among school students are also analysed in the report, the analysis being placed in the global context, as the drug problems facing Europe are increasingly influenced by developments occurring internationally.

With regard with the report, Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, said that “the impact of the drugs problem continues to be a significant challenge for European societies. Over 93 million Europeans have tried an illicit drug in their lives and overdose deaths continue to rise for the third year in a row. I am especially concerned that young people are exposed to many new and dangerous drugs. Already 25 highly potent synthetic opioids were detected in Europe between 2009 and 2016, of which only small volumes are needed to produce many thousands of doses, thus posing a growing health threat. The annual European Drug Report gives us the necessary analysis, guidance and tools to tackle this threat together across Europe, not just to protect the health of our citizens, but also to stop huge profits from drugs ending up in the pockets of organised crime groups in Europe and beyond.”

Overdose deaths on the rise for third consecutive year

The increasing number of drug overdose deaths in Europe, which has risen for the third consecutive year, is a major source of concern. A total of 8 441 overdose deaths, mainly related to heroin and other opioids, are estimated to have occurred in Europe in 2015, a 6% increase on the estimated 7 950 deaths in the 30 countries in 2014. Increases were reported in almost all age groups. Rises in overdose deaths in 2015 are reported in Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and Turkey. Europe’s 1.3 million problem opioid users are among the most vulnerable.

New drugs emerging at a slower pace, but overall availability still high

Infographic retrieved from the 2017 European Drug Report/EMCDDA
Infographic retrieved from the 2017 European Drug Report/EMCDDA

New psychoactive substances (NPS/‘new drugs’) remain a considerable public health challenge in Europe. Not covered by international drug controls, they include a broad range of synthetic substances, including cannabinoids, cathinones, opioids and benzodiazepines.

In 2016, 66 NPS were detected for the first time via the EU Early Warning System — a rate of over one per week. Although this number points to a slowing of the pace at which new substances are being introduced onto the market — 98 substances were detected in 2015 — the overall number of substances now available remains high. By the end of 2016, the EMCDDA was monitoring more than 620 NPS (compared with around 350 in 2013).

New synthetic opioids — highly potent and a growing health threat

Highly potent synthetic opioids, which mimic the effects of heroin and morphine, are a growing health threat. While representing a small share of the market, there are increasing reports of the emergence of these substances and of the harms they cause, including non-fatal intoxications and deaths. Twenty-five new synthetic opioids were detected in Europe between 2009 and 2016.

With only small volumes needed to produce many thousands of street doses, new synthetic opioids are easy to conceal and transport, posing a challenge for drug control agencies and a potentially attractive commodity for organised crime. They are found in various forms — mainly powders, tablets and capsules — with some now available as liquids and sold as nasal sprays.

Signs of rising cocaine availability

Europe’s most commonly used illicit stimulant drugs are cocaine, MDMA (sometimes referred to as ‘ecstasy’ in tablet form) and amphetamines. Cocaine use is higher in Western and Southern European countries — reflected in ports of entry and trafficking routes — while use of amphetamines is more prominent in Northern and Eastern Europe. The stimulant market has become increasingly complex in recent years, with the arrival of new stimulants (e.g. phenethylamines and cathinones).

Data from wastewater monitoring and on seizures, price and purity suggest that the availability of cocaine may be rising again in parts of Europe. Both the number of seizures and the quantity seized increased between 2014 and 2015. Some 87 000 seizures of cocaine were reported in the EU in 2015 (76 000 in 2014), amounting to 69.4 tonnes seized (51.5 tonnes in 2014). At city level, a study analysing municipal wastewater for cocaine residues showed a stable or increasing longer-term trend in most of the 13 cities with data between 2011 and 2016. Of the 33 cities with data for 2015 and 2016, 22 cities reported an increase in cocaine residues, four a decrease and seven a stable situation.

Around 17.5 million European adults (15–64 years) have tried cocaine at some time in their lives. Of these, around 2.3 million are young adults (15–34 years) who have used the drug in the last year. National surveys since 2014 show levels of cocaine use to be primarily stable.

Global cannabis policy developments: what implications for Europe?

Recent changes in the regulatory framework for cannabis occurring in parts of the Americas have generated interest among policymakers and the public in Europe.  According to the report, “There is a need to wait for robust evaluations before the relative costs and benefits of differing cannabis policy approaches can be assessed”. Within the 28 EU Member States, current approaches to cannabis regulation and use are diverse, ranging from restrictive models to the tolerance of some forms of personal use (12). However, no national government in Europe (EU 28, Turkey and Norway) has currently expressed support for the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use.

Regardless of any wider impact on drug policy, the existence of a commercially regulated cannabis market in some countries outside Europe is fuelling innovation and product development (e.g. vaporisers, e-liquids, edible products), which may, in time, impact on patterns of use in Europe. Here the report underlines the importance of monitoring and the need to evaluate the potential health implications of any future changes.

Some 87.7 million European adults (15–64 years) have tried cannabis in their lifetime. Of these, an estimated 17.1 million are young Europeans (15–34 years) who have used cannabis in the last year. Around 1% of European adults are daily or almost daily cannabis users (use on 20 days or more in the last month). The most recent survey results show that countries continue to follow divergent paths in last-year cannabis use. Cannabis continues to be associated with health problems and is now responsible for the greatest share (45%) of new entrants to drug treatment in Europe (28 EU, Turkey and Norway). Overall, the number of reported first-time treatment entrants for cannabis problems rose from 43 000 in 2006 to 76 000 in 2015.

The Chair of the EMCDDA Management Board Laura d’Arrigo concluded that “as the drug phenomenon continues to evolve, so too must Europe’s responses. The first step towards achieving this is an understanding of the challenges we face: the EMCDDA strives to provide the best possible evidence on the drug situation across Europe. The data presented this year in the European Drug Report compare national situations and clearly highlight emerging threats, helping decision-makers to act effectively. The EMCDDA’s analyses are crucial to ensure that the new EU action plan on drugs for the next four years remains relevant. Promoting an evidence-based culture in drug policymaking is a key contribution to a healthier and more secure Europe.”