EU Drug Markets Analysis 2024 Key insights for policy and practice

The following are some selected extracts from the EU Drug Markets Analysis 2024 Key insights for policy and practice report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol

Current landscape and key threats
Based on 2021 data, the EU drug market is estimated to have a minimum retail value of at least EUR 31 billion. It is a major income source for organised crime. A key feature of this market is the interconnectedness between different illicit drugs, with criminal networks and key brokers and facilitators often engaging in poly-drug criminality. The large EU drug market also intersects with, and has a significant impact on other crime areas, such as the trafficking in firearms and money laundering.

The latest data and analysis show a large, complex and constantly evolving EU drug market (Figure 1).

Availability remains high across the main drugs used in Europe, evidenced by the large and in some cases increasing quantities that continue to be seized in the European Union. In addition, the market for illicit drugs is characterised by the diversification of consumer products and the widespread availability of a broader range of drugs, including new psychoactive substances, often of high potency or purity.

Specialised equipment may be required to meet the detection and monitoring challenges posed by this diversification. The recent emergence of highly potent opioids, particularly benzimidazoles (nitazenes), poses a particularly complex threat to public health due to their increased risk of life-threatening poisoning. The potential emergence of new patterns of consumption in Europe is also a key threat, due to the availability of cheap and highly potent or pure drugs. This is particularly the case for cocaine, which has seen unprecedented levels of availability.

Industrial-scale production of cannabis and synthetic drugs, such as amphetamine, methamphetamine, MDMA and cathinones, takes place in the EU for both domestic and international markets. The scale and complexity of synthetic drug production in Europe is driven by innovation in methods and equipment, and the availability of the key chemicals needed. Large-scale cocaine processing also now takes place inside the European Union. Europe is also likely an important transit zone for global drug flows, particularly cocaine from Latin America and to a lesser extent amphetamine in the form of captagon tablets from Syria and Lebanon.

A diverse range of criminal networks operate in the EU drug market. These networks demonstrate a high level of adaptability, capitalising on technological advancements and broader societal changes, exploiting legal business structures and taking advantage of opportunities in the traditional and digital economies. Criminals often rely on other networks or brokers to facilitate their illicit activities. This also gives them the flexibility to diversify sources and products, trafficking routes and concealment methods – enhancing their efficiency and adaptability to minimise risks and maximise profits.

The EU drug market has shown remarkable resilience to global crises, instability and significant political and economic changes. Recent examples of such shocks include the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan. In response, criminal networks have adapted, changing trafficking routes and diversifying their methods. Simultaneously, these developments have also influenced the emergence of new markets and in some cases appear to have changed consumer preferences.

Illicit drug markets and the regular economy intersect in numerous and significant ways. For example, criminals exploit the commercial transport infrastructure to traffic drugs and they use loopholes in legislation to access chemicals for illicit drug production. These intersections are also visible on the cannabis and opioid markets, where some products legally available for medicinal or industrial purposes may be diverted. For example, legal industrial hemp cultivation and CBD (cannabidiol) production may be exploited for the manufacture of unauthorised cannabis products.

Some EU Member States are experiencing unprecedented levels of drug market-related violence, often related to the cocaine and cannabis markets. This appears to be concentrated in distribution hubs and in competitive retail markets. Such violence includes killings, torture, kidnappings and intimidation, and often takes place between criminal networks, although innocent people are also victims. This has a severe impact on society as a whole, increasing the perception of public insecurity.

Criminal networks rely on corruption across all levels of the drug market to facilitate their activities and mitigate risks, including those posed by the criminal justice system. Drug-related corruption also targets individuals with access to key infrastructure, such as those working in logistics hubs, the legal profession and the financial sector. Corruption, which is often linked to violence, has a corrosive effect on the fabric of society and undermines governance, creating systemic vulnerabilities and sometimes coercively involving people in criminal activity.

Innovation in illicit drug production results in higher outputs, increased potency or purity, and a broader range of consumer products. Criminal networks continue to introduce novel chemicals to produce synthetic drugs, posing complex challenges for law enforcement. Innovation in the chemical concealment of drugs also significantly complicates detection and interdiction. Simultaneously, criminal networks leverage digital advances and technological opportunities to conceal illicit communication, improve drug distribution models and reduce risk. An example of this is the recent rise in the use of social media and instant messaging applications for the retail sale of drugs, making a wide range of substances more accessible.

Actions to address current threats and increase preparedness
Monitoring and responding to the multiple threats that are posed by the EU drug market requires a multidisciplinary, flexible and future-oriented approach – mitigating harms and seizing opportunities for positive change. Below the report outlines the key areas that need to be addressed in order to respond effectively to current and future threats arising from EU drug markets.

Improve the intelligence picture: detection, monitoring and analysis

  • Strengthen the systematic monitoring and analysis of the EU drug market, including precursors, illicit drugs and new psychoactive substances, making further use of advanced methods and technologies, such as artificial intelligence and satellite imagery analysis.
  • Enhance detection and monitoring of particularly harmful substances with significant negative implications for public health, such as synthetic opioids and new psychoactive substances.
  • Further strengthen threat assessments across the drugs supply chain, including a focus on how developments outside Europe may impact on the EU drug market.
  • Improve monitoring and analysis of drug market-related violence, using comparable indicators and tools, with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of its causes. In conjunction, prioritise the mapping of criminal networks that pose the highest threat.
  • Enhance monitoring and analysis of the use of online platforms to trade and distribute drugs. Particular attention should be paid to developments on the surface web and social media platforms, especially in relation to their use by young people.
  • Develop new frameworks to analyse the potential impact of legislative changes on illicit drug markets. This will require improved understanding of the size of the drug market and its possible impacts on governance.
    Strengthen responses to reduce supply and enhance security
  • Strengthen operational responses against criminal networks, particularly against high-risk criminal networks and high-value targets. The latter include the brokers and facilitators that enable illicit activities, such as money-laundering networks.
  • Further prioritise operational activities that dismantle entire criminal networks and their associates.
  • Make full use of relevant European tools for operational coordination and international cooperation, in particular operational task forces and joint investigation teams.
  • Enhance responses to the trafficking and diversion of precursors and essential chemicals used in drug production. Enhanced strategies are required to prevent criminal networks from exploiting weaknesses of current control measures and to reduce the supply of precursors.
  • Strengthen administrative barriers to prevent criminals from exploiting legal loopholes and the licit economy. This should include enhanced and targeted measures to tackle corruption to prevent criminals from undermining the rule of law. Enhance interdiction capacity at seaports, post and parcel hubs in Europe. This should include the implementation of advanced monitoring technologies and tools.
  • Strengthen and further prioritise crime prevention policies focused on young people at risk of exploitation and recruitment by criminal networks. Prevention and awareness programmes targeted at online risk behaviours among young people should also be enhanced.
    Strengthen international cooperation
  • Strengthen engagement and cooperation with international organisations and third countries to tackle criminal networks across the entire supply chain for illicit drugs. Particular attention should be paid to improving cooperation at key hubs for drug flows destined for the European Union.
  • Promote the exchange of data and intelligence on drug trafficking networks, routes and trends to enhance situational awareness and coordinated responses between the European Union and third countries.
  • Further support the implementation of relevant European regulations and international agreements to harmonise legal frameworks to disrupt the drugs trade. Particular attention should be paid to improving frameworks for extraditing and prosecuting criminals operating in external countries.
  • Strengthen public-private partnerships to prevent the exploitation of licit business structures and international trade routes. This includes prioritising improved resilience against criminal activity in key logistics hubs.
    Invest in capacity-building
  • Increase the human and financial resources devoted to operational and strategic responses. Particular attention should be paid to capacitybuilding in key entry points for drugs flows to Europe, and to ensuring coherence and alignment with established best practice.
  • Strengthen investment in the development and implementation of innovative detection, monitoring and analysis technologies.
  • Further invest in the training of key workers and officials, both within Europe and in key external countries, to raise awareness and further disseminate best practices to prevent criminal activities.
  • Enhance assistance and capacity-building support to third countries on key drug trafficking routes to Europe, focusing on law enforcement, border control and drug treatment and harm reduction programmes
    Strengthen policy, public health and safety responses
  • Further enhance evidence-based policymaking to mitigate the negative health and security impacts of illicit drug markets. Specifically, future-oriented policy approaches and responses are needed, based on detailed threat assessments, to anticipate and proactively mitigate emerging threats.
  • Improve targeted crime prevention efforts, focusing on vulnerable communities.
  • Enhance investments in targeted and evidence-based prevention, treatment and harm reduction interventions to mitigate the harmful consequences of drug use.
  • Improve policy awareness and responses to the environmental risks and damage associated with drug production, trafficking and use.

Towards a coherent approach
The EU legislative framework is key to providing a coherent approach for law enforcement and judicial authorities in tackling organised crime. This legislative framework provides Member States with efficient tools, such as the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT), to disrupt criminal actors across the supply chain for illicit drugs. Going forward, there is a need to strengthen other integrated approaches that address the root causes of illicit drug markets. To this end, policies and responses should aim to tackle the social, economic and psychological drivers of illicit drug markets. Continued implementation of all relevant measures under the EU legislative framework, along with the development of new policies and responses to tackle emerging threats, is of great importance to ensure coherence in the fight against organised crime.

Detailed recommendations are available in the individual modules: https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/eu-drug-markets_en

You can read the full report at: https://www.europol.europa.eu/cms/sites/default/files/documents/EU%20Drug%20Markets%20Analysis%202024.pdf.