Home > EU drug markets – a strategic analysis.

Connolly, Johnny (2013) EU drug markets – a strategic analysis. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 45, Spring 2013, pp. 8-9.

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An EU drug markets report, jointly published by the EMCDDA and Europol, is the first comprehensive overview of illicit drug markets in the European Union.1 It covers issues such as drug production, consumer markets, trafficking, organised crime involvement and policy responses, along with a review of the markets for heroin, cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and new psychoactive substances. It concludes with concrete action points for the areas where the current EU response to the drug market and its consequent harms may be improved. The report highlights a number of factors relevant to the Irish illicit drugs market, and Ireland’s response to the ‘head shop’ phenomenon, an issue of growing concern throughout Europe.

A comparative study of this nature can be useful, even in terms of trying to understand national developments in drug markets. For example, in late 2011, information was gathered in an attempt to understand anecdotal reports of a reduction in the supply of heroin in Europe: ‘Evidence of this phenomenon was collected between November 2010 and March 2011 from Bulgaria, Ireland, Hungary, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and some regions in Russia, whereas heroin remained available, with possible increases in purity, in Belgium and France’ (p.30). Although the causes of these developments remain unclear – they may relate to a shift in demand towards alternative drugs, such as fentanyl, or the possible disruption of heroin supply routes through Turkey owing to law enforcement efforts – research of this nature at an international level can help explain national trends.2
With regard to cocaine consumption among young adults in Europe, Ireland is included in a list of relatively high-prevalence countries, which also includes Spain, the UK, Italy and Denmark: ‘These five countries alone account for 1.7 million (or 62%) of the estimated 2.7 million users “in the last 12 months” in the 15–34 age group, with prevalence levels of between 2.6% and 4.4%. The European prevalence rate for “last 12 months” use amongst young adults stands at 2.1%’ (p.42).
Ireland is also among a number of countries that have experienced increases in the domestic cultivation of herbal cannabis in the last five years. The others are Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden and the UK (p.59). Using drug seizure size as an indicator, the report also provides a useful picture of cannabis resin supply routes into and throughout Europe. It is reported that Ireland is a transit point for cannabis en route to the UK and onwards into mainland Europe:
Average seizure sizes greater than 1kg suggest that Ireland is…an entry point for Moroccan resin into Europe. Resin seizures represent about 15% of estimated national consumption; it is likely that some of the resin entering Ireland eventually ends up in the United Kingdom, where the market for resin, although smaller than the market for herb, is still rather large, estimated to be about seven times the size of the Irish market. Seizures in the United Kingdom are on average smaller than in Ireland (under 1kg) and represent one-third of estimated national demand… (p.62)
The report also considers the involvement of organised crime groups (OCGs) in drug production and trafficking. With regard to herbal cannabis it is reported that ‘Vietnamese OCGs have become prominent in the indoor cultivation of cannabis in many EU countries, particularly Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia and the United Kingdom’(p.64). These OCGs are described as ‘hierarchical in structure’, incorporating a range of specialised personnel, including ‘electricians, plumbers and managers of cultivation facilities’ (p.64). The report also alludes to the social factors that can lead to people becoming involved with such illegal activities. In relation to herbal cannabis, ‘Gardeners tending the plants are often illegal migrants working to pay off their passage’ (p.64).
Synthetic drugs are produced mainly in Belgium and the Netherlands. However, police intelligence suggests ‘the growing prominence of Polish and Lithuanian OCGs in trafficking drugs obtained in the Netherlands to various Nordic and Baltic States, Ireland and the United Kingdom’ (p.78).
The report also looks at the increasing importance of the internet as a source of supply of new psychoactive substances and ‘legal highs’, an issue that has featured on the political agenda in Ireland.3 EMCDDA data show that the number of online shops offering these substances increased from 170 in January 2010 to 693 in January 2012 (p.106). A recent Eurobarometer survey referred to in the report found that, among 15–24-year-olds, ‘lifetime use of “legal highs” in most Member States was 5% or less’, whereas ‘use in the United Kingdom, Latvia, Poland and Ireland was 8%, 9%, 9% and 16% respectively’ (p.106). The high rate in Ireland can be traced to the significant number of ‘head shops’ operating in this country in the years covered by this report.
The report also describes the legislative approaches adopted in different member states, particularly in response to the growing number of new drugs. While some member states, such as Ireland and the UK, have adopted a ‘generic’ approach, whereby families of substances are scheduled on the basis of their chemical make-up, in other countries ‘legislation covers a wider range of derivatives of controlled drugs with similar structures or effects’, known as an ‘analogue’ approach (p.113).
According to the report: ‘The rapid spread of new drugs is prompting some Member States to rethink their response to the problem.’ Recently enacted legislation in Ireland, in the form of the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010, and similar legislation introduced in Poland, are mentioned in this regard. In each case the new law defines proscribed drugs in functional terms rather than in terms of their chemistry: ‘This required careful legal definitions of such substances. Briefly, the Irish law defines them as psychoactive substances not specifically controlled under existing legislation. The Polish law refers to “substitute drugs”, defined as a substance or plant used instead of, or for the same purposes as, a controlled drug, and whose manufacture or placing on the market is not regulated by separate provisions’ (p.113).
The report concludes by highlighting a number of action points that need to be adopted across the EU in response to the various issues raised. These cover such areas as organised crime; the global nature of the drugs market and the engagement with producer and transit countries; the importance of the internet; as well as specific actions in relation to cannabis, heroin, cocaine, synthetic drugs and new psychoactive drugs. Finally, the report highlights the importance of developing high-quality indicators of drug supply, further integrating forensic science information and enhancing the evidence base through the identification of research needs and the promotion of cross-national and multidisciplinary studies.
1.     European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Europol (2013) EU drug markets report: a strategic analysis. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/19227
2.     For a discussion of the heroin drought in Ireland see Stokes S (2012) Quantitative evidence of a heroin drought. Drugnet Ireland, (40): 21–23. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/16882
3.    Connolly J (2012) Impact of legislation to control head shops. Drugnet Ireland, (40): 29. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/16890
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 45, Spring 2013
April 2013
Page Range
pp. 8-9
Health Research Board
Issue 45, Spring 2013
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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