Written by Katrien Luyten (updated on 28.08.2023).
The EU is an important market for illicit drugs (hereinafter referred to as drugs), both in terms of consumption and production. An estimated 29 % of European adults aged 15-65 have used drugs at least once in their lifetime, the majority of them being men. Cannabis remains by far the most used drug, followed by cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy or molly) and amphetamines. Drugs have been claiming an increasing number of lives in the EU since 2012, but their impact goes far beyond the harm caused by their use.
The drugs market is the largest criminal market in the EU, with an estimated minimum retail value of €30 billion per year in the EU alone. Over a third of the organised crime groups active in the EU are involved in the trade in drugs, which, besides generating massive criminal profits and inflicting substantial harm, incites associated violence. Drug markets furthermore have links with wider criminal activity, including terrorism; they have a negative impact on the legal economy and communities, cause environmental damage and can fuel corruption and undermine governance.
Drugs have been trafficked into and through the EU for decades, but they are also increasingly produced in the EU, for both local and global markets, as is the case for cannabis and synthetic drugs such as amphetamines. In fact, the trade in synthetic drugs in the EU is unique compared to other substances, as the production of these drugs and new psychoactive substances in most cases takes place in the EU. In 2021, around 1 million seizures of drugs were reported in the EU-27 plus Norway and Türkiye.
Although the EU Member States carry the primary responsibility for developing their drug policy and legislation, cross-border cooperation is paramount in the fight against drugs. With the problem constantly expanding in scale and complexity, the EU has been increasingly active since the early 1990s, particularly with respect to law enforcement, health-related issues and the detection and risk assessment of new psychoactive substances.
This is an update of a briefing published in September 2021.
Read the complete briefing on ‘Understanding the EU’s response to drugs‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
Listen to policy podcast ‘Understanding the EU’s response to illicit drugs’ on YouTube.