Written by Katrien Luyten with Alessia Rossi.
In 1987, the United Nations General Assembly decided that every year 26 June should mark International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The idea was to demonstrate its commitment to the fight against drug abuse, illicit production and trafficking, and their nefarious effects on individuals and on society as whole. The illicit drug market generates huge profits for organised crime, and is estimated to be the source of approximately one fifth of global crime proceeds.
The illicit drug market has long been the largest criminal market in the EU, reaching an estimated minimum retail value of €30 billion a year. Illicit drugs are also the preferred market for organised crime groups, eager to accumulate wealth by whatever means necessary. Their use of violence has intensified in recent years as they seek to intimidate other drug suppliers identified as rivals.
Europe is globally considered an important market for drugs, both in terms of domestic production and as a transit point or trafficking destination from other countries around the world. South America, west Asia, and North Africa are major drug-trafficking corridors into Europe. Cannabis and synthetic pharmaceuticals are also produced increasingly within Europe. According to the 2022 European Drug Report issued by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), cannabis is the illicit drug most used in the EU (used by 78.6 million adults) – followed by cocaine (14.4 million), MDMA (10.6 million) and amphetamines (8.9 million). The same report estimates that around 83.4 million or 29 % of adults (aged 15 to 64) have used illicit drugs at least once. According to estimates provided in the report, at least 5 800 people died of an overdose involving illicit drugs in the EU in 2020, up 12 % from 2019. Although overdose deaths increased in nearly all age categories, the highest increase (82 %) was among the 50-plus age group. Opioids, mainly heroin or its metabolites, often in combination with other substances, were found in 74 % of all fatal overdoses; furthermore, of all those entering drug treatment in Europe in 2020, 28 % did so with opioids as their primary drug.
Criminal groups not only adapt their supply to society’s demand but are also flexible in adapting and capitalising on changes in the environment in which they operate, creating additional challenges for law enforcement. In this regard, innovation in drug production, trafficking methods, and the related use of anonymised services for secure communications are a fertile breeding ground for the establishment of new trafficking routes and the growth of online markets, on both the surface web and the darknet. Drug sales using social media and instant messaging apps are attractive to potential customers and may be on the increase, as these technologies are perceived as a safer, more convenient and more accessible source of supply. These new methods were refined during the Covid-19 crisis, against which this market has been extremely resilient.
According to the EMCDDA report, levels of drug availability and use increased across the EU in 2021 compared with 2020, with some variations depending on the substance and the Member State. This points to a return to the pre-pandemic drug situation. In addition, the drug market can be influenced by significant international developments. Geopolitical tensions, determining the attractiveness of a specific border region or sector for criminals, are considered an opportunity for organised crime groups. In this regard, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine may also have an impact in the medium and long terms on the kinds of drug problems facing the European Union.
EU action against drug abuse and illicit trafficking
The drug market not only inflicts substantial harm on millions of people, it also infiltrates and undermines public institutions, health and safety, the environment and labour productivity. For all these reasons and many others, the EU has been active in pursuing strategic and operational measures since the 1985 Schengen Agreement and 1990 Schengen Convention. Member States have been increasingly reliant on cross-border and EU cooperation to support their law enforcement authorities on the ground and to counter transnational drug operations. The constant goal is to reduce drug supply and demand by working closely with all partners at national and international level, EU institutions, bodies and agencies, as well as civil society organisations. Justice and home affairs EU agencies, such as the EMCDDA, Europol and Eurojust, play a central role in the drugs field, in the EU and internationally.
It is worth mentioning that the Council of the EU recently adopted a general approach on the new mandate of the European Drugs Agency, which aims to transform the current EMCDDA into a fully fledged agency and to respond more effectively to the new health and safety challenges posed by illicit drugs. Once adopted by the co-legislators, the Commission proposal put forward in January 2022, will enable the Agency, amongst other things, to issue alerts for particularly dangerous substances put on the market; to set up a network of forensic and toxicological laboratories; to carry out awareness and prevention campaigns at EU level; develop research in a more systematic way on drug markets and drug supply, and also support the EU policy against drug trafficking and drug consumption at international level.
Through the EU drugs strategy, the EU coordinates evidence-based, balanced and integrated measures with EU countries, and speaks with one voice internationally. In 2020, the Council of the EU approved the EU’s 2021-2025 drugs strategy, which builds on input from the Commission communication on an EU agenda and action plan on drugs for 2021 to 2025 – adopted in July 2020 as part of the new 2020-2025 security union strategy. The strategy aims to ensure a high level of health protection, social stability and security, while also contributing to awareness-raising. Moreover, it places EU responses to organised crime and drugs problems at the centre of the EU policy agenda – also dovetailing with the applicable goals of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
Law enforcement action against drug trafficking is coordinated through EMPACT (the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats). This is a security initiative, driven by EU Member States, to identify, prioritise and address threats posed by organised and serious international crime and has become a permanent instrument, as set out in the Council conclusions on the permanent continuation of the EU policy cycle for organised and serious international crime: EMPACT 2022+.
Relatively few EU legislative acts have been adopted in this area. Along with the Council implementing decisions to ban new psychoactive substances, these include:
- Directive (EU) 2017/2103 on adding new psychoactive substances to the definition of ‘drug’, amending Council Framework Decision 2004/757/JHA and repealing Council Decision 2005/387/JHA;
- Regulation (EU) 2017/2101 amending Regulation (EC) No 1920/2006 on information exchange on, and an early warning system and risk assessment procedure for, new psychoactive substances; and
- Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2020/1737 amending Regulation (EC) No 273/2004 and Regulation (EC) No 111/2005 as regards the inclusion of certain drug precursors in the list of scheduled substances.
Parliament has been very active in addressing the problem of illicit drug control across the entire EU for many years. Already back in 1986, Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Council to address the drug problem at ‘all levels from production and supply to demand and consumption’. In its 2020 resolution on the EU security union strategy, Parliament called for increased focus on rehabilitation and prevention in the EU action plan, not least through awareness-raising campaigns dedicated especially to children and young people. Parliament once again stressed that attention should be paid to both drug production and consumption and called for the extension of the EMCDDA’s mandate to cover multiple addictions.
Read this at a glance note on ‘International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
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