European report warns about the rising amount and purity of synthetic drugs

European report warns about the rising amount and purity of synthetic drugs

Benito Díaz

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMDDA) has presented its yearly report about the trade and consumption of psychoactive substances in the EU territory. European police agencies, the World Health Organisation, the European centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the UN Office On Drugs and Crime, amongst others, have collaborated.

The institution celebrates its 25th anniversary launching its new study. It highlights the rise of the amounts seized, the low impact of the pandemic in consumption habits and the soaring percentages of purity and presence of substances such as MDMA in ‘ecstasy’ tablets. It also underscores the irruption of numerous new types of derivates of methamphetamine, as well as synthetic cannabinoids and opioids.

The report

The data presented, available in the Monitoring Centre’s webpage, start with the estimate percentages of drug consumption. Cannabis still leads, with a use amongst adults between 16 and 64 years of age of approx. 7.6%, which amounts to 25.2 million people who consumed it during the last year, compared to a 27.2% or 90.2 million people who admit having consumed it at some point in their lives. The cocaine consumption grows, reporting 1.3% or 4.3 million adults who consumed in the last year. The figure of people who has consumed it at some point in their lives reaches 5.4%, which translates to 17.9% million people.

In the case of MDMA, 2.7 million people admit having consumed it in the last year, reaching 13.6 million of people who have tried it sometime. Amphetamines were consumed by adults 2.0 million times in 2019-2020. Opioids were present in 82% of the cases of deadly overdoses.

Seizures reach historical maximum figures in terms of amount and quality of the product. This means that the availability of the substances is still high, since, along with the possibilities of confiscation, the amount that succesfully trespasses borders soars. It must be remembered that the amount of cocaine seized in the EU reached its peak in 2018, at 181 tons.

The study highlights the production of substances in Europe, destined to local and world markets. “The police forces detect more labs and production centres. The changes in the production tactics of the organised crime groups underlie this tendency, but also the access to precursor chemical substances and cheaper and new processing equipment”, warns the report. “The production of illegal drugs is based now in a more diverse group of chemical substances that is hard to respond to under European and international laws, and also difficult to control”.

Overdose and hepatitis C

The concern around the higher quality of these products comes from the rise of cases of overdoses entailing health risks. According to the numbers, these situations happen ever more often in older groups of population, and there is an especially significant increase in people over 50, registering a surge of 75%. “Such an evolution underscores the need to acknowledge the growing vulnerability of an aging cohort of lifelong drug consumers, and the need to turn this group into an important target of the measures of treatment, social reinsertion and damage control”, the analysis points out.

It also expresses the need to enforce drug policies to mitigate the rise of cases of contagion of viral hepatitis, specifically type C. As we pointed out in an article about Chemsex, the rise of this kind of infection is due to the growing use of substance injections in Europe. “In the 2017-2018 period, the prevalence of HVC antibodies in the national samples obtained from injected drugs consumers ranged from 16% to 86%, and ten of the 16 countries that gathered national data informed of levels above 50%”, claims the EMCDDA.

Expert opinion

We ask Claudio Vidal, Andalucía coordinator for Energy Control-Asociación Bienestar y Salud (Wellbeing and Health Association). “The EMCDDA’s report is not an exact picture, it is limited by the information compiled by the states”, he explains. “They use homogeneous methods, not always going as deep as necessary in terms of indicators or the timeliness of the data. It is useful to see extended tendencies in the population and it can be reliable then. In cases not so pervasive that would require more detail, it is not that accurate”.

The analyst claims that the European situation is quite stable, according to the phenomena observed during recent years. “There is no big difference, even though some indicators can go up or down slightly from one year to the next”. “I don’t think there is a particular item missing. It is a report that a European agency makes, a report of a situation, very descriptive. They do not get too involved, but you cannot ask more of them. It is a good report, the weak spot is not the analysis but the surveying system in general, above all in terms of consumption prevalence”.

Currently working in Energy Control, Vidal emphasises the subject of analysis of stimulant substances, specifically MDMA. “We follow it closely”; he tells us: “We are immersed in a pandemic, an exceptional situation wrapped in uncertainty. For instance, we do not know yet if that will affect the production of MDMA and whether there will be a shortage of the substance. Moreover, the incursion of Mexican cartels in collaboration with the Dutch ones to reconvert and modernise the laboratories to dedicate them to methamphetamine makes it a possibility that the market will be affected in the near future. And as is the case in any shortage situation, the risk is higher for consumers”.

We ask Vidal about the certainty of the introduction of higher percentages of MDMA in the ecstasy tablets, which is mentioned in the report. “Yes, it is true. Our data coincide with those in the report. The average content in a tablet is around 180-190 milligrams of MDMA, compared to 125mg in 2015. That doubles the standard dose for a person of the average weight (70-80Kg). The standard is 1mg per kilogram of weight. We have even found samples with higher concentration, of up to 360 mg. The consumption of these, even in small portions, can be too much for certain people. It is a systematic pattern that we started observing in 2016 when tablets returned to the market. It is due to an overproduction of MDMA, the introduction of improvement processes in the synthesis of the substance, the presence of new precursors, cheaper and more efficient ingredients, all added to the price stability”.

Claudio Vidal values the results of the study and highlights the stability of the data. “We can see a rise of the consumption of certain substances. And an increase in cocaine’s and amphetamine`s purity. I think the responses given to the phenomenon are not being successful. This can be seen in the supply side, maybe the most threatening aspect for society. Even if numerous laboratories are being dismantled and great seizures made, now the shipments are bigger”.

In our review of the document, we miss at least some reference to the impact of COVID-19, like we did find in the parallel report of the UNODC that was presented on past June 26th.


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