COVID fails to dent ‘resilient’ European drug market

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The European drug market has ‘continued to adjust’ to disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, says EMCDDA’s European drug report 2021: trends and developments.

EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel
EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel

Traffickers in a ‘resilient and more digitally enabled’ market have adapted to border closures and travel restrictions, as reflected in changes to trafficking routes and less reliance on human couriers.

While street drug markets were badly affected by early lockdown restrictions and there were localised shortages of some substances, sellers and buyers have increasingly migrated to encrypted messaging services, social media platforms and the dark web, says EMCDDA, with the result that ‘a long-term impact of the pandemic could be the further digitalisation of drug markets’.

Cocaine remains the second most-used drug in the EU after cannabis, with purity remaining at high levels. A record 213 tonnes were seized in 2019 and preliminary data from last year suggests that availability has not declined during the pandemic. A recent Europol report detailed how Latin American criminal networks were increasingly moving into the European cocaine market, attracted by the higher prices and lower risks than in North America (DDN, May, page 5).

Almost 50 new NPS were reported in 2020, including potent new synthetic cannabinoids and opioids, bringing the number being monitored by EMCDDA to 830. While purity levels of MDMA powders also remained high – along with the availability of pills with high MDMA content – demand had declined during lockdown.

‘Evidence shows that, in the early lockdown periods, there was less consumer interest in substances usually associated with recreational events – such as MDMA – as people stayed at home,’ says the agency. ‘However, analysis of wastewater samples (available for some European cities) suggests that levels of use of most drugs bounced back as restrictions on movement, travel and social gatherings were eased in summer 2020. Among the worrying developments linked to the pandemic are signs of a possible increase in crack cocaine availability and use in some countries.’ A rise in benzodiazepine misuse was also noted, including in prison populations, reflecting high levels of availability and low cost of the drugs, while cannabis cultivation appeared stable. 

There were more than 500,000 clients in opioid substitution treatment in 2019 in the EU, with opioids accounting for more than a quarter of all drug treatment presentations and involved in three quarters of  fatal overdoses. However, among first-time clients entering treatment with heroin as their primary drug, 23 per cent reported injecting as their main route of administration, down from 35 per cent in 2013.

‘We are witnessing a dynamic and adaptive drug market, resilient to COVID-19 restrictions,’ said EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel. ‘We are also seeing patterns of drug use that are increasingly complex, as consumers are exposed to a wider range of highly potent natural and synthetic substances. We need urgently to recognise that not only is a wider variety of people now personally experiencing drug problems, but these problems are impacting on our communities in a wider variety of ways. This is why I believe it is crucial, across the areas of social, health and security policy, to develop the evidence-based and integrated responses envisioned by the new EU drugs strategy’.

Report at www.emcdda.europa.eu