Cocaine floods Europe as container shipping drives South American trafficking

Just like Maltese Customs busts at the Malta Freeport, cocaine seizures are at record levels thanks to maritime shipping

Europe is seeing signs of an increase in cocaine availability, with seizures of the drug at record levels, the EU’s drugs agency EMCDDA said today in Brussels.

With over 1 million seizures of illicit drugs reported annually across Europe, the European drug report’s latest data on cocaine shows that both the number of seizures and quantities of cocaine seized are at record levels.

Over 104,000 cocaine seizures were reported in the EU in 2017 (98,000 in 2016), amounting to 140.4 tonnes, around double the quantity seized in 2016 (70.9 tonnes).

Although the retail price of cocaine remained stable, its purity at street level reached its highest level in a decade in 2017.

Cocaine enters Europe through numerous routes and means, but the growth in large-volume trafficking, using maritime shipping containers, stands out as a major challenge.

Indeed, so far this year 750kg of cocaine, worth €83.9 million have been seized by the Customs department at the Malta Freeport, usually carried in containers from South America.

READ MORE Powerful scanner gives Malta the edge on South American cocaine passing through port

Cocaine is transported from diverse departure points in South and Central America to Europe by various means, including passenger flights, air freight, private aircraft, yachts and other small vessels. However, the largest quantity appears to be smuggled in maritime freight, especially containers.

Belgium (45 tonnes) and Spain (41 tonnes) accounted for 61% of the estimated EU total quantity seized in 2017, but large quantities were also reported by France (17.5 tonnes) and the Netherlands (14.6 tonnes). In addition, the purity of cocaine at retail level has been increasing since 2010, particularly in 2016 and 2017, when it reached the highest level in the last decade.

“There is evidence that the use of social media, darknet marketplaces and encryption techniques are playing an increasing role in enabling smaller groups and individuals to engage in drug dealing. Looking at the cocaine market, entrepreneurship can be seen in innovative distribution methods.

“One example is the existence of cocaine ‘call centres’, with couriers providing fast and flexible delivery. Such methods – reflecting a potential ‘uberisation’ of the cocaine trade – are indicative of a competitive market in which sellers compete by offering additional services beyond the product itself,” the EMCDDA report said.

750kg of cocaine, worth €83.9 million have been seized by the Customs department at the Malta Freeport

Cocaine is the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in the EU, with around 2.6 million young adults (15-34 years) having used it in the last year (2017 estimate). A recent study of drug residues in municipal wastewater revealed the highest residues standardised per 1,000 people per day were recorded in cities in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, and the UK.

Around 73,000 clients now enter specialised drug treatment for cocaine-related problems. Of particular concern are the 11,000 of these who entered treatment for crack cocaine-related problems, a particularly damaging form of cocaine consumption. The number of ‘new’ clients reported as requiring treatment for a cocaine problem for the first time rose by 37% between 2014 and 2017, suggesting treatment needs are growing.

Cannabis: Europe’s most established drug

Cannabis remains the most widely used illicit drug in Europe, with some 17.5 million young Europeans (15-34 years) estimated to have used cannabis in the last year.

Levels of lifetime use of cannabis differ considerably between countries, ranging from around 4 % of adults in Malta to 45 % in France.

A recent EMCDDA study found that herbal cannabis and resin had doubled in typical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content over the last decade, raising concerns about potential harms.

Around 1% of adults (15-64 years) in the EU are estimated to be daily, or almost daily, cannabis users.  Cannabis is now the substance most often named by new entrants to specialist drug treatment services as their main reason for contact.