The EU's annual report on the state of the narcotics problem in Europe reveals that cannabis is still the drug of choice of Europe's population -- and demand is increasing.
A lifestyle choice
"Europe remains a major market for stimulant drugs and indicators suggest that the trend in amphetamine, ecstasy and cocaine use continues to be upwards," revealed the 2005 annual report compiled by the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Center for Drug Addiction (EMCCD).
Cocaine has a glamourous reputation
Around 9 million people in the EU, 3 percent of all adults, have tried cocaine. But when it comes to the drug of choice, cannabis continues to be on top. More than 62 million Europeans have tried it, while 9.5 million are categorized as regular users, according to the report published on Thursday. Germans are especially fond of the drug, with 15 percent between 15-34 having smoked or ingested cannabis last year, the fifth highest figure in Europe and just above the European average.
But the report also revealed that EU drug decriminalization measures and better treatment programs are showing results. Experts said the shift in EU strategy to prevention, not punishment, has proven to be more effective.
Punishing trafficker, not user
Treatment for addicts has improved
"The EU has been making some progress with its anti-drugs strategies," said Klaus Hurrelmann, a drugs expert at Bielefeld University. The increased tendency to look at the roots rather than the symptoms of the problem has been one of the most positive developments in recent years, he said.
"There's been a shift away from penalizing consumers towards getting tough on traffickers," he said.
The emphasis on decriminalization coupled with a push for better education and treatment has led to positive developments in the fight against heroin. The total number of clients in substitution treatment has passed the half million mark in the European Union, according to the report.
Heroin boom doesn't materialize
Following a seven-fold increase over the last decade, says the EMCCD, at least 530,000 clients now receive substitution treatment across 28 countries whether through specialist treatment centers or general practitioners. And it is estimated that somewhere between one-quarter and a half of those with opiate problems in Europe may now be receiving treatment of this kind.
Black markets weaken economies
Roland Simon, of the German watchdog for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the DBDD, points out another positive side-effect of the EU's education and treatment agenda.
"Many expected to see an increase in heroin trafficking post 9/11," he pointed out, referring to the fact that although the former Taliban government banned poppy production, harvests have risen to record levels since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
"But demand is simply no longer there," said Simon. "There's actually been a stabilization of the opiate scene, with far fewer new users and far better treatment programs."
Eastern Europe increasing drug use
The news isn't good for all of Europe. Improving economies in eastern Europe have led to more users -- especially of cannabis -- in the new EU countries, said Simon.
"Opiates used to arrive in Europe via the Balkan route, including Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia, and once these countries themselves became financially attractive to drug traffickers, a large percentage of the opiates would remain there," he explained. "The same is now happening with drugs passing through supply channels in eastern Europe such as the Czech Republic, where there's more money circulating than there used to be."
The report also warns of the increase in violations of drug law, and says the EU is still a long way from getting a grip on trafficking, a point with which Hurrelmann agrees.
A call for strategic legalization
"The EU has failed either to reduce the consumption of illegal drugs or to tackle the ever-growing black market," said Hurrelmann. "As the consumption of cannabis and the so-called party drugs increases, the black market continues to grow exponentially. In this respect, EU drug policy has been simply inefficient."
"There needs to be a European-wide discussion about a strategic legalization that would allow for product control," he proposed. "For the time being, what we have are black markets undermining the economies of the production countries as well as our own. But any talk of strategic legalization is still a highly taboo political subject."