Written by Katrien Luyten.
Every 26 June, the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking seeks to raise awareness of the problems, challenges and nefarious effects of illicit drugs (hereinafter referred to as drugs) on individuals and on society as whole. Drugs are an increasingly complex security, social and health problem that affects millions of people in the European Union (EU) and globally. The drug market generates huge profits for organised crime, and is estimated to be the source of approximately one fifth of global crime proceeds. The EU is considered an important market for drugs, in terms of both consumption and production. Over a third of the organised crime groups (OCGs) active in the EU are involved in the drugs trade. The fight against drugs is therefore a priority for the EU and its Member States.
The illicit drug market in the EU is characterised by the relatively widespread availability of a broad range of drugs, which are often available at high potency or purity. This has led to increasing risks to public health. According to the 2023 European Drug Report, issued by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), cannabis is the most-used drug in the EU (used by an estimated 8 % of European adults (22.6 million persons aged 15 to 64) in the 12 months preceding the survey), followed by cocaine (1.3 % or 3.7 million). The latter is the most commonly used stimulant drug and amphetamine the most commonly used synthetic stimulant. The EMCDDA is increasingly concerned about the rise in synthetic drugs and the potential health risks of polydrug consumption and of novel substances, which are often mislabelled or sold in mixtures, leaving customers unaware of what they are using. According to estimates provided in the report, at least 6 166 people died of an overdose involving drugs in the EU in 2021; mostly because of opioids, usually in combination with other substances.
Drugs are the preferred market for OCGs, eager to accumulate wealth by whatever means necessary. They are not only trafficked from abroad to the EU but also produced locally, in particular cannabis and synthetic drugs. According to the 2023 European Drug Report, there is evidence of closer involvement of European drug producers and traffickers with international criminal networks. The EU is both a transit point and trafficking destination from other countries around the world. South America, West and South Asia, and North Africa are major drug-trafficking corridors into Europe, whereas China and India are important source countries for new psychoactive substances. Criminal networks rely mostly on maritime routes for high-volume drug smuggling. Large seizures of drugs in intermodal shipping containers have been detected in the last few years, though OCGs also increasingly target smaller ports in other EU Member States and in countries bordering the EU. Criminal groups adapt their supply to society’s demand and are also flexible in adapting and capitalising on changes in the environment in which they operate, creating additional challenges for law enforcement. 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. The use of violence by OCGs has intensified in recent years, as they seek to intimidate other drug suppliers identified as rivals. The EMCDDA has also observed greater levels of corruption and other criminal practices driven by the drug market in some countries. At international level, drug problems are growing in many low- and middle-income countries, undermining governance and development, in addition to the health and security challenges that they already face.
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 OCGs. The ban on opium poppy cultivation announced by the Taliban in Afghanistan in April 2022 and the war in Ukraine may also have an impact on the kinds of drug problems facing the EU in the medium and long term.
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, which gradually removed controls at the signatories’ internal borders and made the need for regulation more pressing.
Even though drugs are a domain essentially reserved for national policies in the EU, the Union has made use of its competences – albeit narrowly defined – and has actively fostered law enforcement and health cooperation among the Member States in this domain. However, EU involvement has only been possible within the boundaries set by the United Nations and the Member States. Relatively few EU legislative acts have therefore been adopted in this area. Along with the Council implementing decisions to ban new psychoactive substances, legislation lays down minimum provisions on the constituent elements of criminal acts and penalties in the field of drug trafficking (Council Framework Decision 2004/757/JHA); on information exchange on, and an early warning system and risk assessment procedure for, new psychoactive substances (Regulation (EU) 2017/2101 amending Regulation (EC) No 1920/2006) and on the EMCDDA (Regulation (EC) No 1920/2006), for example. This latter is in the process of being revised, with the European Parliament and the Council having provisionally agreed to strengthen the mandate of the EMCDDA. Under the revised regulation, the EU Drugs Agency will be able to react more effectively to new challenges, provide better support for Member States and contribute to developments at international level. An important aspect will be the setting up of a European network of forensic and toxicological laboratories, planned for 2024, to help improve understanding of developments in the drug market and the health implications of changing patterns of drug consumption.
The most recent EU drugs strategy (for 2021 to 2025) is the principal EU policy document guiding the EU’s activities on drugs. The EU 2021‑2025 drugs action plan translates the strategy into specific action, with the objective to reduce drug supply and demand; address drug-related harm; increase international cooperation; and foster research innovation, foresight, coordination, governance and implementation.
Member States are increasingly reliant on cross-border and EU cooperation to support their law enforcement authorities on the ground and to counter transnational drug operations. 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. 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 – EMPACT 2022+.
The European Parliament has been very active in helping to address the problem of illicit drug control in the EU. As early as 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 and stressed that attention should be paid to both drug production and consumption. Parliament is also currently working on a broader range of measures that affect criminals in general – including OCGs involved in the drug trade. These include legislative proposals to tackle corruption and money laundering; to freeze and confiscate the proceeds of crime; to give access to competent authorities to centralised bank account registries through a single access point; to facilitate access to electronic evidence in criminal matters; to facilitate the tracing of transfers of crypto-assets; and to automate data exchange for police cooperation.
This is an update of a June 2022 ‘at a glance’ note written by Katrien Luyten and Alessia Rossi.
Read this ‘at a glance’ note on ‘International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking: EU action against illicit drugs‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.