EU drug markets report: key findings

Brussels, 31-1-2013 — / — Drug trafficking is a highly profitable commercial activity and a core business for organised crime groups across Europe today. Understanding the reality of the European drug market requires a holistic approach, following the economic chain from production, via trafficking, to consumption. In today’s EU drug markets report, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol have joined forces to provide the first state-of-the-art overview of this market in its entirety. Describing how Europe is entering a new phase regarding the supply and demand for drugs, the agencies identify key action points to inform future policies (see Chapter 10 of the report and a selection below). Chapters on specific drugs begin with key statistics ‘at a glance’ and end with EU policy responses and operational and international initiatives.

1. Drivers of change (see also IP/13/73)

The changing face of organised crime

The report describes the changing face of organised crime in Europe and a more ‘polymorphous, dynamic and fluid’ market. Contributing factors to this change include: criminals’ multi-commodity perspective; the diversification of trafficking; and the exploitation of legitimate transportation options (e.g. containers, couriers, postal services).

Action points: coordinate targeted, intelligence-led law-enforcement actions focusing on ‘high-value’ criminals and groups; interrupt criminal money flows; forge partnerships with industry to tackle the misuse of commercial channels for drug trafficking.

The impact of global developments on the European drug market

It is impossible to understand the European drug market without locating it within a global context. The report explores: the changing global marketplace (demand for drugs in the developing world); the role of Africa (transit, storage) and the need for cooperation between EU and non-EU countries. The EU is also a major drug producer, and criminal gangs in North-West Europe play a pivotal role in intra-European trafficking.

Action points: boost positive engagement with a larger number of producer and transit countries; improve analysis of supply and demand trends outside the EU; focus on Africa; continue to target drug production in the EU and to suppress trafficking of drugs and precursor chemicals from the region.

Technology and innovation

Technology is a ‘significant game-changer’ in the trafficking, production and distribution of drugs, with the Internet having a profound impact as communication tool and marketplace. But innovation is also seen in the area of production (EU as a key ‘source of expertise and know how’ on cannabis cultivation, synthetic drug production).

Action points: improve knowledge of the online drug market; create barriers to Internet sales via partnerships with credit card companies and online payment providers.

2. Drugs in perspective


Europe’s heroin problem has its roots largely in the 1990s and is characterised today by a relatively small and ageing population of users. While heroin use continues to be responsible for severe health and social problems, recent data suggest that use of the drug in the EU is in decline. Here vigorous policing along the heroin routes bordering the EU, and the success of Member States in engaging those with heroin problems in effective drug treatment programmes, are both likely to have played a significant role. The European heroin market therefore appears less important today in global terms, with non-EU heroin markets now larger and easier to penetrate. Turkey still plays a central role in heroin trafficking along the Balkan route, but there are signs of new routes being used as organised criminals respond to interdiction successes (e.g. Western Balkans). Organised crime groups linked to heroin now appear more active in markets for other drugs (e.g. cocaine). A specific risk highlighted is the potential diversification of heroin networks into methamphetamine production and trafficking. Europe remains a key source of the heroin precursor acetic anhydride.

Action points: invest in intelligence-led operations along classical heroin trafficking routes; build strategic partnerships with non-EU countries (e.g. in Africa); ensure joined-up law-enforcement against a joined-up threat (interaction between markets).


Over the last decade, cocaine has established itself as the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe, yet most users are found in a small number of western EU countries. Although demand for the drug remains high, indicators of cocaine use at EU level peaked around 2008 and have since fallen slightly. Spain and Portugal are the main points of entry for cocaine into Europe (with trafficking through West Africa a particular concern). New routes are also emerging. Cocaine concealed in container shipments is becoming more common, and recent major seizures have been made in the Black Sea and Eastern Baltic Sea areas. Interaction between cocaine and cannabis resin trafficking networks is well established, but interaction is also being seen between cocaine and heroin traffickers. To avoid detection, traffickers use sophisticated chemical techniques to incorporate cocaine into legitimate products (e.g. clothing, plastics). Most of the cocaine laboratories dismantled in the EU are ‘secondary extraction labs’ used to remove cocaine from materials in which it has been incorporated before exportation to Europe.

Action points: assess new threats (Black Sea; Balkan areas); focus on containers and develop partnerships between customs, port authorities and commercial transport bodies; support precursor control in producer countries.


The diversity and sophistication of cannabis products, producers and sources, and the sheer scale of demand for the drug, makes it relatively resilient to interdiction efforts. Herbal cannabis production is now widespread throughout the EU, a shift that has been accompanied by developments in cultivation technologies that may result in increased yield and potency. Being cultivated close to the intended consumer market, domestically grown herbal cannabis is more difficult to intercept and poses a new challenge for law enforcement. Trafficking of cannabis resin, principally from Morocco, remains a key concern and is sometimes linked to the importation of other illegal cargoes.

Action points: share know-how between countries on domestic cannabis production and improve monitoring of yields and potency; act in key areas (Morocco; S-E Europe).

Synthetic drugs (amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy)*

Recent developments in the synthetic drug market include a bounce-back of ecstasy (MDMA) availability; increased availability of methamphetamine; greater technical sophistication; and evidence of a scaling-up of production processes. There is increasing evidence of synthetic substances being used as replacements for both heroin and cocaine and signs of more interplay with the market for non-controlled new psychoactive substances. Ecstasy use over the medium term has stabilised or even declined, due in large part to successful enforcement. The increased availability of MDMA in tablets, and now powders, may, however, see renewed interest in this drug. Demand for synthetic drugs in Europe is met largely by laboratories located intraregionally, particularly in the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Belgium, Poland and Lithuania. However, trafficking in precursors (and pre-precursors) occurs on a global basis, and producers are proving versatile in finding new production methods. The EU remains an important exporter of amphetamine and ecstasy.

Action points: target the intra-regional production of synthetic drugs through coordinated law-enforcement actions; identify key producers; restrict access to precursor chemicals; strengthen the international framework for restricting new precursors and pre-precursors.

New psychoactive substances*

New psychoactive substances (new drugs) comprise a broad range of substances that are not controlled by international drug laws. In recent years, there has been a dramatic growth in their number, type and availability. Much of the policy focus on new drugs has concerned their legal status. However, it is also important to see them in the context of the overall drug market (interplay between the ‘legal high’ and illicit drug market). New drugs are usually synthesised outside the EU, while EU-based ’entrepreneurs’, operating in a grey area, play an important role in importing, packaging and marketing. The report stresses the challenge of identifying new drugs which belong to diverse chemical groups, emerge rapidly and are sold in products that may contain mixtures of substances that change over time (meaning that users are exposed to substances of unknown toxicity). The Internet is a source of supply and information to consumers, traders and producers.

Action points: strengthen the EU early-warning mechanism on new drugs to keep pace with challenges; boost forensic capacity to improve detection; keep up-to-speed with new Internet trends; respond to the interplay between the ‘legal highs’ and illicit drug market; take rapid action to protect public health via fast-track EU-wide alerts.

* Case studies on these issues are available at the following link:

3. Information needs

Understanding a complex phenomenon such as the drug market requires sound analysis informed by data on both supply and demand. Improving the measurement of drug markets and the effectiveness of supply reduction responses demands that data be based on common definitions and standards. The report highlights the strategic and operational importance of forensic information, and the value of operational intelligence (when used with safeguards) to enrich statistical analysis. Monitoring, analysis and assessment are essential tools for ensuring that strategies and responses remain fit for purpose.

Action points: develop standardised key indicators of drug supply; scale up and share forensic science information; develop models to quantify the drug market.

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