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Europe is a major market for illegal drugs, according to the latest European Drug Report. Experts have expressed concern about designer drugs and the growing number of drug-related deaths on the continent.
Roughly 93 million Europeans have consumed illegal drugs at some point in their lives - that is more than one-quarter of all people ages 15 to 64 in the EU. This is just one of the many findings detailed in the new European Drug Report.
Here is another: In 2015, 1.5 million drug offenses were registered in the EU; 1 million of those offenses involved the possession of drugs for personal consumption. About half were related to cannabis, which, according to the 100-page study, is by far the most prevalent drug in the EU: last year, roughly 24 million Europeans used it.
Approaches to cannabis vary greatly across the EU. In the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic users face little threat of punishment, as drug policies in those countries tend to be relatively liberal. But in Lithuania, Slovakia and Greece, possession of larger amounts of cannabis can result in drastic punishment - up to 10 years in prison for 1 kilo (35 ounces) of the drug.
New psychoactive substances
Compiled with data from all EU member states, the annual report is issued by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in Lisbon, Portugal. What especially concerns EMCDDA experts is the continuing availability of so-called new psychoactive substances, also know under the acronym NPS. These designer drugs are chemical variations of other well-known drugs and have been available for purchase thanks to legal loopholes. These drugs have long been advertised and sold as "legal highs" online and at specialty shops. Some 620 such substances are known to exist in the EU. One positive finding in the report: the number of NPS is growing at a slower rate than in the past. In 2015, experts found 98 new substances, in 2016 that number was "only" 66. Andrew Cunningham of the EMCDDA says that is the result of stricter laws.
"A number of countries, such as Poland, Ireland and the United Kingdom outlawed these substances, so now they are only available on the black market," he told DW. Cunningham added that other countries, including Germany, have outlawed certain classes of substances such as cannabinoid, a synthetic substance that mimics the effects of cannabis; or cathinone, which acts similarly to cocaine or other amphetamines.
Times have become tough not only for sellers, but also for producers, especially in China: Until recently, many of these types of drugs were being made on an industrial scale at Chinese chemical laboratories. But in October 2015, more than 100 NPS were declared illegal in China. Nevertheless: Despite the quadrupling of seizures made by authorities between 2010 and 2015 (80,000), EMCDDA experts remain cautious in their optimism: "The availability of new psychoactive substances is still high, even though fewer new substances are coming to market."
Natural cannabis less dangerous
Cunningham explained that synthetic substances can be far more dangerous than nature's version of the drug, pointing to a risk assessment of a synthetic cannabinoid from 2016.
"EU member states report about 30 use-related deaths," he said. "That simply doesn't happen with naturally grown cannabis."
Cunningham also confirmed that in the Netherlands, which has a fairly liberal policy as relates to natural cannabis, there is barely a market for such synthetic substances.
He also emphasized the extreme threat posed by synthetic opiates: these substances mimic the effects of heroin, but are in fact much stronger. They are often prescribed as painkillers and administered through transdermal patches in very small doses. Cunningham described a number of overdose cases related to those drugs while speaking with DW.
Growing number of drug deaths
According to the European Drug Report, more than 8,400 people overdosed on heroin or other synthetic and natural opiates in 2015. That is an increase of 6 percent from 2014. Julian Vincente, who is responsible for public health at EMCDDA, said that is a worrying development, especially because it reverses a long trend: The number of drug-related deaths in Europe had been going down since peaking in 2008.
After years of decline, drug related deaths went up in Germany in 2015 as well. This prompted the EMCDDA to call for distributing Naloxone to drug addicts and their relatives: The medication can save lives, especially in the case of an overdose, because it blocks the effects of opioids.
EMCDDA experts have also observed that the sale of drugs has increasingly shifted to the internet - especially the darknet - over the last six years. EMCDDA specialist Teodora Groshkova said that drug trafficking on the darknet is still a limited phenomenon, but cautioned she expects that to change drastically in the coming years because the platform makes drugs available to larger groups of users. Data pertaining to drug sales and the darknet are currently lacking, said Groshkova, but research is being conducted: In October, the EMCDDA and Europol will release a comprehensive study on drug trafficking on the darknet.