€30bn drugs trade a 'threat' to health and security of Europe

€30bn drugs trade a 'threat' to health and security of Europe

Cocaine availability is at unprecedented level in Europe, compounded by a sharp increase in heroin seized. Stock image.

Cocaine availability is at an “unprecedented level” in Europe, with record seizures of the drug being reported.

The ongoing surge in cocaine supply has now been compounded by a sharp increase in the amount of heroin seized — sparking warnings from the EU drugs agency at the possible health implications.

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the €30bn European drugs market allowed gangs to “buy weapons, buy people, and buy power” and ultimately “undermine” society.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) reports a continuing rise in the purity and potency of the main drugs — cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and cannabis.

The findings from the EMCDDA annual report comes as Ireland has recorded massive drug hauls this year, including 62kg of cocaine and 93kg of cannabis herb in June, and 35kg of cocaine and 62kg of cannabis herb in April.

Just last August, gardaí seized 22kg of heroin, while Cork had its biggest ever haul of heroin in July, when 3kg were seized.

Ireland has the joint-third highest number of drug-related deaths after Sweden and the UK

The EMCDDA European Drug Report 2020 found:

  • 181 tonnes of cocaine were seized in Europe in 2018, up from 138 tonnes in 2017, which was the previous record year;
  • These hauls of cocaine compare to average seizures of 50-70 tonnes over the previous eight years;
  • 9.7 tonnes of heroin were seized in 2018, up from 5.2 tonnes in 2016, which the EMCDDA described as a “worrying” increase;
  • Ireland has the joint-third highest number of drug-related deaths after Sweden and the UK (continuing a previous trend) – a death toll three times the European average.

The EMCDDA said the massive increase in cocaine seizures, along with high purity of the drug, more cocaine treatment cases in clinics, significant cocaine-related hospital emergencies, and cocaine-induced deaths suggested that “cocaine availability in Europe is at an unprecedented level”.

In its Irish briefing on the report, the Health Research Board (HRB) said cocaine became the second most common main problem drug reported in 2019, after previously being the third most common drug.

It said cocaine now accounted for 24% of all treatment cases, compared to just 8% in 2013.

The HRB said cocaine was implicated in 53 deaths in Ireland in 2017, an increase of 26% on 2016.

In 2019, crack cocaine accounted for 14.3% of all cases treated for cocaine as the main problem in Ireland, compared to 11.3% in 2018.

This suggests more vigilance is necessary to detect any signs of increased consumer interest in a drug associated with serious health and social problems

Separate Irish figures indicate that the size of cocaine hauls have grown in recent years. In 2017, the largest three seizures of cocaine were 20kg and two 10kg hauls. This jumped to 66kg, 49kg, and 36kg in 2018.

Frank Feighan, Minister of State with responsibility for the National Drug Strategy. Picture: Robbie Reynolds
Frank Feighan, Minister of State with responsibility for the National Drug Strategy. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

To-date in 2020, there have been similar-sized seizures: 62kg, 35kg, and 22kg.

In relation to heroin, the EMCDDA said the volume of heroin seized had doubled. It added that the increasing volume of heroin seized in Turkey (the main supply route of heroin into Europe) was “worrying”, as was the manufacturing of heroin within the EU.

“This suggests more vigilance is necessary to detect any signs of increased consumer interest in a drug associated with serious health and social problems,” said the report.

Just this week, British police seized 1.2 tonnes of heroin on board a vessel bound for Antwerp, Belgium.

Launching the report, Ms Johansson said that trade in the estimated €30bn European drugs market posed both a “security threat and a health threat”.

The report said both cannabis resin and herb now contain, on average, about twice as much THC (the active chemical) as they did just a decade ago.

It said that there was a “pressing need” for greater surveillance of this area.

In relation to ecstasy, the report noted the continued availability of high-content MDMA tablets and high-purity powders.

“Alongside increases in both the average MDMA content in tablets and the purity of powders in 2018, data shows that products containing extremely high levels of MDMA are also being detected,” it said.

“These products pose considerable health risks for people using them and raise an important issue for prevention and harm-reduction messaging and interventions.” 

Citing previously published figures, dating back to 2015, Ireland is joint-fifth in Europe for recent use (in the last year) of cocaine among the 15-34-year-old age group.

Recent use of ecstasy among the same age was the second-highest in Europe, while recent use of cannabis was 12th highest, and below the EU average.

Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy, Frank Feighan, said: "The latest European drug report highlights the serious challenges created by illicit drugs and the overall strength of substances including high-potency cannabis. As minister with responsibility for the National Drug Strategy, I am committed to strengthening early harm-reduction responses to current and emerging trends and patterns of drug use."

'Perfect storm' drug use warning

The economic shockwaves from the Covid-19 pandemic and the increased availability of drugs could create a “perfect storm”, the EU drugs agency has warned.

The head of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) said EU states must “act rapidly” to address the unfolding repercussions, including increased demand on already stretched public services.

EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel said that while the use of certain recreational drugs, like cocaine and ecstasy, seemed to have fallen during the crisis, consumption of other drugs, such as cannabis, tranquillisers, and alcohol, appeared to have increased.

In addition, the agency said that hidden websites and social media were playing a greater role in supplying drugs during the pandemic and that the trend away from physical dealing and cash could persist.

Mr Goosdeel said that when the health crisis hit Europe, drug services were “severely disrupted” and there was a lack of personal protective equipment.

The use of cannabis, tranquillisers, and alcohol, appears to have increased. File image
The use of cannabis, tranquillisers, and alcohol, appears to have increased. File image

He said that while there seemed to be an impact on recreational drugs — typically used in nightclub, pub, or party settings — such as cocaine and MDMA, other drugs saw an increase in use, including cannabis, benzodiazepines (tranquillisers), and alcohol, frequently in combination.

The report said users faced a risk of infection, by “sharing cannabis joints or cocaine straws, sharing preparation equipment among high-risk drug users (crack pipes, spoons, filters), and splitting and handing over MDMA tablets”.

It said that chronic health problems combined with the poor living conditions often associated with high-risk drug use may make people both more susceptible to coronavirus and in danger of more severe consequences if infected.

Mr Goosdeel said organised crime groups had proven “extremely resilient” during the crisis and that there had been a “digital transformation” for the illicit economy.

The report said: “Generally since the emergence of the pandemic, surface web and darknet markets, social media and secure encrypted communication applications now appear to be playing a more prominent role in the sourcing of drugs at the user level. Less face-to-face dealing and less reliance on cash as a form of payment seem to be increasing for individual transactions, and it is possible that behavioural changes, once established, will persist.” 

Mr Goosdeel also warned at the economic impact of the crisis, on both drug use and the drugs trade: “We must be concerned, however, that, as the economic repercussions of the crisis take effect, some in our communities may become more vulnerable to drug problems and drug market involvement, putting greater pressure on our already stretched services. It is essential therefore that we act rapidly to identify and address new threats that may emerge from this fast-evolving situation.” 

He drew a link with the increased supply of heroin in recent years and the potential for certain sections of society hit hard by the economic repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis turning to opiates, including heroin.

He said some estimates suggest that one in five businesses could close, with “increased social and economic vulnerability”.

He said this, together with the increased availability of all drugs, including opioids, could create a “perfect storm we need to avoid”.

Project linked to virus impact 

A rapid harm reduction strategy adopted in Dublin at the start of the Covid-19 crisis has been linked to much lower than expected infection among homeless drug users, according to a report from the EU drugs agency.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction highlighted a project set up by state and voluntary bodies in Dublin in early March aimed at people who used drugs and homeless.

Citing information from Tony Duffin of the Ana Liffey Drug Project and Dr Austin O’Carroll, the report said the HSE, Dublin City Council and a number of NGOs "acted rapidly" and set up seven residential units within weeks. 

It said the waiting time for treatment was reduced from 12 weeks to 2-3 days for people who were homeless and opioid-dependent and that benzodiazepine stabilisation prescriptions provided for people in isolation/cocooning.

It said that as of April 24 in Dublin, among this cohort:

A total of 33 people had been diagnosed with Covid-19 since the beginning of the crisis;

Three clusters (i.e. two or more cases) of Covid-19 had been identified within homeless accommodation; 

There had been no known Covid-19 related deaths The report said: “The number of Covid-19 cases among this cohort was lower than had been anticipated; for example, in the week of April 24, nearly 200 Covid-19 cases had been expected, but only four cases were reported.

“Similarly, more clusters of cases within homeless accommodation and some associated deaths had been anticipated.” 

It added: “For people who use drugs and are homeless, harm reduction has been, and will continue to be, an important part of the public health response to Covid-19 in Dublin; it is considered crucial both to help stop the spread of the virus and to reduce drug-related harm.”

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