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Drug supply in Europe returns to 'business as normal' after pandemic, new reports claims

'For drug use, there are also signs of a return to pre-pandemic levels'

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Neil Fetherstonhaugh

Drug supply and use have bounced back across Europe after the disruption caused by the pandemic, a new EU report reveals.

In its annual report published earlier today, the EU’s drug agency has warned that new evidence was emerging of rising drug production across the continent.

The report also highlights serious concerns about new psychoactive substances being sold and consumed on the continent.

“For drug use, there are also signs of a return to pre-pandemic levels,” the report states.

“Wastewater analysis, for example, reveals increases in the use of cocaine, crack, amphetamine and methamphetamine in some cities between 2020 and 2021.

“And, as Covid-19 restrictions have been relaxed across Europe, drug treatment and other services appear to have returned to ‘business as usual’, while maintaining some of the innovative practices adopted during lockdown.”

The report also warned that “synthetic drug production continues to increase in Europe," saying illegal laboratories are now churning out huge amounts of amphetamine, methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs.

Drugs and the chemicals needed to produce them are still largely imported into Europe from other parts of the world including South America and Asia, the report reveals.

However, European criminal organisations are tightening their ties with cartels outside the continent in a bid to cut costs for drugs production and trafficking.

The report, which is based on information from European law enforcement agencies, revealed that more than 350 labs for synthetic drugs were detected and dismantled in 2020 in Europe, the latest year for which data is available.

The EU agency added that law enforcement agencies also discovered more cocaine labs and production sites for new drugs, such as cathinone.

Cathinone is a chemical similar to amphetamine which is believed to be the main active substance in khat, a plant traditionally used in Eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula for its stimulant effects.

The EU drugs agency reported record trafficking of cathinone in Europe, as part of the growing use of new narcotics, which "continue to appear in Europe at the rate of one per week," the report said.

Most dismantled labs of illicit drugs were found in Belgium and the Netherlands. Production facilities were also detected in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and other EU countries.

An estimated 5, 800 overdose deaths, involving illicit drugs, occurred in the EU in 2020, the report adds.

Most of these fatalities were associated with polydrug toxicity, which typically involves combinations of illicit opioids, other illicit drugs, medicines and alcohol.

Alongside high cocaine availability in Europe, reports indicate that crack use may be increasing and is now seen among vulnerable drug users in more cities and countries.

Crack is usually smoked, but can also be injected, and is linked to a range of health and social harms including infectious diseases and violence.

Long-term trends point to an estimated 7,000 clients entering drug treatment for crack problems in Europe in 2020, triple the number in 2016.

Developments in the cannabis area are also creating new challenges for how countries respond to Europe’s most commonly consumed illicit drug.

Cannabis products are becoming increasingly diverse, including extracts and edibles (high THC content) and CBD products (low THC content).

In 2020, the average THC content of cannabis resin was 21 %, almost twice that of herbal cannabis (11 %), reversing the trend seen in recent years, when herbal cannabis was typically of higher potency.

This reflects market innovation as resin producers, usually from outside the EU, appear to have responded to competition from herbal cannabis produced inside Europe.

Also highlighted in the report are concerns around illicit cannabis products being adulterated with synthetic cannabinoids, which can be highly potent and toxic.

Users who believe they have purchased natural cannabis products may be unaware that a product contains synthetic cannabinoids and that they are exposed to greater health risks.

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