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Home > EU drug markets: impact of Covid-19.

Guiney, Ciara (2021) EU drug markets: impact of Covid-19. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 76, Winter 2021 , pp. 17-18.

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In May 2020, a report that examined the short-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on European Union (EU) drug markets was published.1 This was a joint initiative by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol. The aim of the report was to increase understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on EU drug markets. Within this context, the definition of the illicit drugs market included illicit production, trafficking, and wholesale distribution and sale to the end-user (p. 6). The findings in the report are centred on data collected using a targeted EMCDDA online survey completed by drug experts in EU member states (n=29), intelligence gathered by Europol on organised crime, and open source information. Areas examined in the report include impacts and drivers of drug markets, the main drug types, criminal groups, law enforcement responses, and outlook.

Impacts and drivers of drug markets

In the main, the effect of restriction measures on low-level violent crime has been positive. However, there has been an increase in drug-related violence in some areas, along with conflicts locally around drug distribution and territory. How drugs are trafficked has been impacted most by new border controls between EU members states. Because of Covid-19, drug traffickers have implemented new strategies to traffic, supply, and distribute products. Darknet markets have become more prominent, particularly in the distribution of small amounts of cannabis herb.

Focus on main drug types

Cannabis: Due to cannabis resin shortages and cannabis herb stockpiling, retail prices have increased in some EU member states. Covid-19 appears to have had no impact on domestic production.

Heroin: Heroin trafficking has persisted on established routes. However, due to quarantine rules and movement restrictions in some places, the availability of heroin has reduced, resulting in higher prices in several locations.

Cocaine: Cocaine trafficking via maritime shipping containers has remained at the same level or in some cases higher than in 2019. Significant seizures were reported in Europe and Columbia despite Covid-19 restrictions.

Amphetamine, MDMA, and methamphetamine: Synthetic drug production continued in the Netherlands and Belgium; however, demand for new psychoactive substances reduced, specifically MDMA, due to venue closures and festival cancellations. Several countries have reported a price increase for amphetamines and MDMA, except the Netherlands, where prices decreased in a bid to increase sales. 

Criminal groups

The largest criminal market in Europe centres on drug trafficking. Organised crime groups (OCGs) regardless of size or ethnicity are actively involved in this type of offence. Collaboration and cooperation between different OCGs are mediated via brokers. The OCG/broker relationship tends to be unstable and short term. Brokers are also involved in money laundering and other criminal services. In the main, the frequency of violent incidents associated with drug trafficking has increased, with some member states reporting instances during the pandemic (e.g. Sweden and the Netherlands). Violent behaviours, such as physical harm, liquidations, and abductions, are mainly used by OCGs against competitors as part of debt recovery, payback, or to maintain control.

Law enforcement responses

To stop the spread of Covid-19, national governments across Europe have implemented border restrictions at land, sea, and air points of entry. The deployment of staff to these locations has resulted in several drug seizures. Notably, the alteration in operational focus has meant that less personnel are available to carry out investigative and intelligence work. Despite the challenges and reduction in shared information globally, EU member states in collaboration with Europol have continued to pursue high-risk OCGs along with their high-ranking members.

It is believed that as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, it will emerge that those involved in the illicit drugs trade, from production through to distribution, will have adapted and overcome challenges by finding new ways of working, adding new routes, and carrying out more online business than in pre-pandemic times. While law enforcement agencies may find this challenging, it will also provide an opportunity to widen inquiries into serious and organised crime.


The authors acknowledge that the data in this study, while limited, provide information that can inform preparations for comparable experiences likely to arise in the future. For example, restrictions and lockdowns reducing the movement of people have resulted in changes in how drug-related business is carried out. Across Europe restrictions are gradually being relaxed; however, changes that have occurred in the production, sale, and distribution of drugs are likely to endure particularly using online platforms. While travel restrictions have limited the movement of products between source and transit countries, large-scale drug importations have persisted via protected communication channels. Hence, it is likely that face-to-face meetings may decline. The modification of drug-related business by OCGs is likely to continue along with greater emphasis being placed on online drug distribution. 

1 European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol (2020) EU drug markets: impact of COVID-19. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco), Cannabis, CNS stimulants, Cocaine, Opioid
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 76, Winter 2021
March 2021
Page Range
pp. 17-18
Health Research Board
Issue 76, Winter 2021

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