European heroin market worth EUR 5bn a year

The EU heroin market is estimated to be worth ‘at least’ EUR 5.2bn annually, says a new report from EMCDDA and Europol. 

While the Taliban’s opium ban has led to a 95 per cent fall in poppy cultivation in Afghanistan according to the latest UNODC analysis (, there are as yet no signs of any heroin shortages in Europe, states EU drug market: heroin and other opioids. 

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The amount of heroin seized by EU member states more than doubled in 2021

The amount of heroin seized by EU member states more than doubled in 2021, to 9.5 tonnes, the highest level recorded for two decades. There are an estimated 1m high-risk opioid users in the EU, the report says, with opioids responsible for three quarters of 2021’s 6,000 drug-related deaths across the continent. Many drugs organisations are concerned that any decrease in heroin availability caused by the situation in Afghanistan could lead to highly potent synthetic opioids like nitazenes filling the gap in the market, with consequent increases in overdose deaths. 

‘Compared to North America, the EU has been impacted to a much lesser extent by synthetic opioids,’ EMCDDA states. ‘This can be attributed to protective factors such as strict prescribing practices, social healthcare provisions in most countries, and well-developed treatment and harm reduction services for existing opioid users.’ However, they are increasingly being detected in places like Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, and urgent action is needed to ‘increase preparedness’, the report says. ‘Concerningly, over the past five years, most of the newly identified opioid substances reported to the EU early warning system on new psychoactive substances have been highly potent benzimidazole (nitazene) opioids, rather than fentanyl derivatives as in previous years,’ it says. 

‘Although we are seeing a decline in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, close monitoring of the supply chain and the diversification of the market is paramount, as criminal networks are known to be business-oriented, flexible and always on the lookout for new opportunities,’ said Europol’s executive director Catherine De Bolle.

‘Europe’s opioid problem is fast-evolving and increasing in complexity, shaped by global developments that may have far-reaching implications for our preparedness and response,’ added EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel. ‘It is imperative that we strengthen our capacity to rapidly detect and counter health and security threats emerging from a changing opioid market. At the same time, maintaining and developing further an integrated and evidence-based portfolio of health and social responses is more important than ever. For this purpose, we need to build on the results and the lessons learned from 30 years of European drug policy, based on the fundamental rights and the active participation of all stakeholders, including people who use drugs.’

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