In 2021, 52 new psychoactive substances were reported for the first time through the European Union's Early Warning System, bringing the total number of different drugs monitored by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) to 880, which has warned of the emergence of "potent and dangerous" new psychoactive substances.
In its latest annual report, released today in Lisbon, the EMCDDA said that of the new psychoactive substances reported in 2021, six are synthetic opioids, six are synthetic cathinones (amphetamines), and 15 are synthetic cannabinoids.
The report from the Lisbon-based European agency says that in 2020, "record quantities of new psychoactive substances" were seized in Europe (27 EU member states, Norway and Turkey), totalling 6.9 tonnes (41,100 seizures), of which 65% (3.3 tonnes) were synthetic cathinones, often sold as substitutes for traditional stimulants such as cocaine or MDMA.
The report also highlights cannabis, the most widely used drug in Europe, as offshoot products produced from the substance "are becoming increasingly diversified, including extracts and edible products".
In 2020, the average content of 'tetrahydrocannabinol' (THC), the main psychoactive substance in cannabis, in cannabis resin was 21%, almost double that of herbal cannabis (11%).
The Centre's analysis also shows an increase in drug production, trafficking and availability in Europe, with more than 350 laboratories producing drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and cathinones 'on a large scale' were dismantled by 2020.
The latest analysis suggests that cocaine availability in Europe remains high. A record 213 tonnes of cocaine were seized in the EU in 2020 (up from 202 tonnes in 2019), and 23 laboratories were dismantled (15 in 2019).
The availability of amphetamines is also high and may be increasing, warns the EMCDDA, as in 2020 Member States seized a record 21.2 tonnes (15.4 tonnes in 2019) and 78 amphetamine labs were dismantled (38 in 2019).
The number of MDMA labs dismantled (29) remained relatively unchanged in 2020. In addition, 15 cathinone production sites were destroyed, compared to five in 2019, while 860 kg of chemical precursors for cathinone production were seized, compared with 438 in 2019. Although less common, illicit laboratories producing heroin, ketamine, GBL and DMT were also dismantled in the EU in 2020.
A key question raised in the report is whether hidden internet ('darknet') drug markets are in decline, as several factors appear to have influenced activity in these markets, such as law enforcement, delivery problems, and scams. By the end of 2021, estimated revenues of these markets have fallen dramatically to just under €30,000 per day (compared to one million daily in 2020).
The report also underlines the need to increase treatment and harm reduction services in Europe for people who inject drugs.
By 2020, only the Czech Republic, Spain, Luxembourg and Norway reported meeting the World Health Organisation targets of providing 200 syringes per year per person who uses drugs and having 40% of the population of high-risk opioid users in opioid agonist therapy (OAT), a protective method against overdose.
In 2020, there were an estimated one million high-risk opioid users in the EU and 514,000 OAT users, suggesting an overall treatment coverage of 50%.
However, there are large differences between countries, and treatment provision remains insufficient in many EU Member States, warns the report, noting that while heroin injecting is in decline, there are growing concerns around the intravenous use of a wider range of substances, including amphetamines, cocaine, synthetic cathinones, prescription opioids and other medications.
The EMCDDA estimates that in 2020 there were 5,800 'overdose' deaths in the EU, with the majority of cases associated with polytoxicity – a combination of illicit opioids, other drugs, medicines, and alcohol.
An estimated 83.4 million (29% of users aged 15-64) in the EU have used an illicit drug in their lifetimes, with more men (50.5 million) than women (33 million) reporting use.
Cannabis remains the most commonly used substance, with over 22 million European adults reporting use in the last year.
Stimulants are the second most frequently reported category. An estimated 3.5 million adults have used cocaine, 2.6 million MDMA, and 2 million have used amphetamines in the last year.
About one million Europeans have used heroin or another illicit opioid in the last year. Although the prevalence of opioid use is lower than for other drugs, opioids still account for most of the harm attributed to illicit drug use.