Home > How illegal drugs sustain organised crime in the EU.

Guiney, Ciara (2018) How illegal drugs sustain organised crime in the EU. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 66, Summer 2018, pp. 19-20.

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A report published in December 2017 by Europol provided an overview of how illegal drugs sustain organised crime within the European Union (EU).1



European drug markets

Drug markets continue to be the most important illegal market in the EU. Over 33% of organised criminal groups (OCGs) have participated in the production, trafficking and supply of illicit drugs, resulting in extensive profits that have enabled a range of illegal activities to be funded. OCGs that participate in the drugs trade are mainly ‘poly-criminal’, that is, they mainly traffic more than one product. Moreover, many OCGs participate in other illegal activities, for example, counterfeit goods, trafficking human beings and migrant smuggling, at the same time. In addition, drugs are utilised as a form of payment among OCGs; for example, cannabis may be exchanged for cocaine.


The drug market has become more and more competitive, which can and has resulted in violent rivalries between OCGs as they mark their territories. Advanced technology, such as climate control systems, CO2 and ozone generators, and chemical equipment, have further enabled OCGs to increase production, while advanced communication, such as encryption, have made disruption by law enforcement more challenging. Advancements in drone technology are likely to create further problems, enabling OCGs to avoid checks at borders, airport and ports.



The main agency involved in law enforcement in the EU is Europol. Its key role is to support EU member states combat serious international crime and terrorism (p. 7). A designated team of experienced specialists and analysts based in Europol’s European Serious and Organised Crime Centre (ESOCC) are available to liaise with and support member states in the fight against illegal drugs. The most commonly shared information between Europol and EU law enforcement agencies is on drug-related investigations and operations.


EU policy cycle

The EU policy cycle, EMPACT (European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats), provides the framework that brings member states, law enforcement agencies, Europol and other multidisciplinary agencies together to combat serious and organised crime. The priorities identified are centred on analyses carried out by the EU Serious and Organised Threat Assessment (EU SOCTA) and the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU. The production, trafficking and distribution of illegal drugs have been identified as one of the key areas to be targeted between 2018 and 2021.2


Emerging threats


A platform increasingly utilised by OCGs in the sale of illegal drugs is the darknet market. There are several reasons for this:

  • It is hard to control by police but easily accessed.
  • It offers anonymity.
  • It makes a secure environment available from which to sell a range of illegal drugs and other illegal products. 

Darknet markets have resulted in a substantial increase in EU drug trafficking via postal and parcel services. In 2017, following an international collaboration between EU and United States law enforcement agencies, two platforms, AlphaBay and Hansa, were taken down.


New psychoactive substances

New psychoactive substances (NPS), which cover a diverse range of substances that mimic the effects of traditional drugs like cannabis and cocaine (e.g. synthetic cannabinoids, stimulants, opioids and benzodiazepines), continue to emerge on EU markets. The consumption of NPS places considerable risk on the health and wellbeing of users and has been associated with death. Currently, 670 NPS are being monitored by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA).3


Fentanyl and its analogues

Fentanyls, which are viewed as ‘highly potent opioid narcotic drugs’ (p. 10), are utilised as medicines (anaesthesia and pain relief) and for controlling large animals. They are used as substitutes for heroin and other illegal opioids. New fentanyls are not regulated under the International Drug Control Conventions put forward by the United Nations. As a result, they are produced and sold openly in several EU member states.


Situational picture

The trafficking and distribution of illegal drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin, synthetic drugs and NPS, have proven to be lucrative for OCGs and resulted in extensive profits for all involved.


Links to the trade in illegal drugs

Two main activities are associated with the illegal drugs trade: terrorism and money laundering.



In the previous 10 years, terrorism and how it is carried out has changed. The EU has been subjected to numerous attacks and plots. It is believed that terrorist activities have been financed within and outside the EU from revenue obtained through smuggling and supplying illegal drugs. This is not something new; the routes utilised to smuggle drugs have long been linked to terrorist-related activities.


Money laundering

Criminal activity centred on illegal drugs results in large-scale profits for OCGs. Money laundering enables OCGs to move the proceeds of crime into economies that are lawful. This can be done in two ways: OCGs can launder funds themselves into businesses and real estate or they can avail of money-laundering syndicates who charge a fee. Money-laundering activities are particularly challenging for EU law enforcement, who have been shown to be unsuccessful in detecting and taking control of illegal funds generated by OCGs. New technological developments, for example, cryptocurrencies and anonymous payment methods, further amplify these issues.

1 European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) (2017) How illegal drugs sustain organised crime in the EU. The Hague: Europol. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/28319/

2 European Union (2017) The EU fight against organised crime. Available online at: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/eu-fight-against-organised-crime-2018-2021/

  3 European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2018) European drug report 2018: trends and developments. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29135/

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