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Record cocaine seizures reported across Europe, but crime gangs adapted to pandemic restrictions

In 2019, more than 370 illegal drug production laboratories were dismantled in Europe.

Image: Shutterstock

A RECORD 213 tonnes of cocaine was seized by authorities across Europe in 2019, while the drug market proved “remarkably resilient” to disruption caused by the pandemic, experts have said.

The findings are contained within the EU’s drugs agency’s annual report, published today, which also noted that organised crime groups have intensified illegal drug production inside Europe to evade anti-trafficking measures.

In 2019, more than 370 illegal drug production laboratories were dismantled in Europe. 

The report notes that any reductions in drug consumption seen during the initial lockdowns rapidly disappeared as social distancing measures were eased with an increasing number of orders for drugs made via smartphones and on darknet markets.

Diversification of drug trafficking routes was also observed, with more cannabis and heroin smuggled by sea, to avoid land border closures, leading to large seizures in Europe’s ports.

Analysis of wastewater samples – available for some European cities – suggests that levels of use of most drugs bounced back as restrictions on movement, travel and social gatherings were eased in summer 2020.

Some changes were seen in the departure locations of cocaine trafficked from Latin America to Europe. However, no decline in supply was evident, and multi-tonne seizures of cocaine were reported in European ports in 2020 and early 2021, 

More than €12 million worth of suspected cocaine was seized in Cork back in February, for example. The European cocaine trade, from Europol statistics, is estimated to be worth in excess of €9 billion annually.  

Preliminary seizure data in 2020 suggest availability has not declined in the pandemic.

Surveys indicate that nearly 2.2 million 15- to 34-year-olds (2.1 % of this age group in the European Union) used cocaine in the last year. While most treatment entrants citing cocaine as their main problem drug are powder cocaine users: 45 000 clients in 2019 or 14 % of all drug clients.

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The European Drug Report also raised concern over the continuing trend towards home cultivation of cannabis and the detection of new synthetic cannabinoids and opioids – there were 46 new drugs detected in 2020 alone.  

“It is not known what could be driving this development but it could possibly reflect both shortages of cannabis linked to the pandemic or, possibly in some countries, criminal groups exploiting the availability of low THC cannabis products, which may be difficult to distinguish from cannabis sold on the drug market,” the report’s authors notes. 

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said she was particularly concerned by the highly pure and potent substances available on the streets and online.

“With the new EU strategies on security and on drugs, our Member States will have robust tools to address this emergency through a balanced approach, tackling both supply and demand, supported by the EMCDDA.”

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Adam Daly

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