New ‘legal highs’ cause fundamental shift in Europe’s drug market

New European drug report out today — Europe’s drugs problem in ‘state of flux’, says EMCDDA

An estimated 77 million European adults (15–64 years) have tried cannabis in their lifetime.
An estimated 77 million European adults (15–64 years) have tried cannabis in their lifetime.

The number, type and availability of new drugs in Europe continued to increase in 2012, according to a report released today by the EMCDDA and Europol.

Driven by globalisation, technological advancement and the Internet, an open market for new drugs has now developed which presents significant challenges to public health, law enforcement and policymaking.

Until around 10 years ago, most new psychoactive substances appearing on the European drug scene were produced in underground laboratories or sourced from diverted medicines and sold directly on the illicit drug market. While this still occurs, the emergence of a thriving 'legal highs' business on the Internet and in specialised shops in urban areas has marked a fundamental shift in the drug market.

Today, these substances, often produced in China and India, are now imported into Europe in bulk where they are processed, packaged and sold as 'legal highs'. They may also end up on the street where they are sold as substitutes for amphetamine, ecstasy, heroin or cocaine.

Over 280 new psychoactive substances are currently monitored by the EMCDD's early warning system. The first, 4-MA - a stimulant - was being sold as amphetamine on the illicit market, while the second, 5-IT, reported to have both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects, was being sold both on the 'legal high' and illicit market. In addition to the risk assessments, the EMCDDA issued a number of public health alerts to the EWS network in 2012, highlighting harms related both to new substances and controlled drugs.

Market in state of flux

Europe's drugs problem is in a 'state of flux', with new threats emerging that challenge current models of policy and practice, the European Drug Report 2013, published today by the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA), says.

In its annual review, the agency describes positive developments in relation to the more established drugs, such as fewer new users of heroin, less injecting and declining use of cannabis and cocaine in some countries.           But these are offset by concerns over synthetic stimulants and new psychoactive substances, offered both on the illicit, and so-called 'legal highs', market.

An estimated 77 million European adults (15-64 years) have tried cannabis in their lifetime; around 20 million reporting to have used it in the last year. Despite national differences, recent survey data suggest overall stable or decreasing trends in use.

Nevertheless, today's report notes that cannabis use remains high by historical standards and that a 'large and relatively robust market' exists for this substance, with a greater diversity of cannabis products available.

Latest data show how herbal cannabis ("marijuana"), sometimes of high potency, is becoming more common in Europe, with almost all of the EMCDDA countries now reporting some domestic cultivation of this product.     Over the past 10 years, the number of seizures of herbal cannabis in Europe has overtaken that of resin and now represents more than half of all cannabis seizures. And in 2011, herbal cannabis accounted for 41% of all drug seizures in Europe, while cannabis resin accounted for 36%.

Latest data on demand for treatment and on seizures also point to a downward trend in the use and availability of heroin. Across Europe, the number of those entering specialist drug treatment for the first time for heroin problems fell from a peak of 59,000 in 2007 to 41,000 in 2011, with reductions most apparent in western European countries. Understanding heroin use trends is a priority due to the public health impact of this drug.

Over the last decade, cocaine has established itself as the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe, although most users are found in a small number of western EU countries. Around 14.5 million Europeans           (15-64 years) have tried cocaine in their lifetime; around 3.5 million reporting to have used it in the last year.          But today's report shows that, overall, cocaine use and supply are now both trending downwards.

While some countries still report rises in estimated cocaine consumption, recent surveys show signs of falling use among young adults (15-34 years) in the five highest-prevalence countries (Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Italy and UK).

And fewer drug users are seeking treatment for cocaine problems. The number of clients reported to be entering treatment for primary cocaine use for the first time fell from 37,000 in 2009 to 31,000 in 2011.

Around 12.7 million Europeans (15-64 years) are estimated to have tried amphetamines in their lifetime, around 2 million reporting to have used them in the last year. Recent data show use of amphetamines to be stable or declining among young. Of the two drugs, amphetamine has been more common in Europe, but there are now signs of rising availability and use of methamphetamine.

A loser is a person who follows without questioning.
Illicit drug use is for losers.