There are no signs of any slowdown in the continuous stream of legal highs with more than 100 new psychoactive substances reported in 2015, according to a report by Europol and the EU’s drug agency.
The official strategic analysis on the state of the EU drugs market says the number of legal highs being monitored has reached 560 – more than twice the number of the more traditional drugs banned under the international drug control treaties.
The European police and drug experts say as the “low risk, high profit” trade in legal highs has grown so have the harms involved including acute, sometimes fatal, poisonings. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has issued 34 urgent public health alerts over the past two years.
The report underlines the challenge facing the British government to control the explosion in legal highs in recent years and is being published one day before the delayed blanket ban on psychoactive substances was due to come into effect.
Legal highs are laboratory synthesised chemical substances designed to mimic the effects of more traditional recreational drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and amphetamines. Nearly 4,000kg of new psychoactive substances were seized in 2014.
Producers try to anticipate bans on individual substances by constantly developing new products that are sold online and through high street “headshops” and other outlets. Express mail and delivery companies are used to ship the packages from China or India to Europe in as little as two days. Recent police seizures of clandestine laboratories indicate that there is increasing interest in producing new legal highs in Europe.
The joint EU drugs markets 2016 report warns that “given the nature of the market and the continuous stream of new substances, it is unfeasible that all of them can be controlled. In October 2015, the Chinese government controlled 116 new substances – which is just over the number currently identified each year in Europe.
“It is unlikely that any regulatory system can be designed to sufficiently limit the stream of new substances being manufactured without resorting to a ban on a huge range of chemicals.”
The annual strategic analysis also examines the wider ramifications beyond the individual harm caused by the illicit drug market in Europe, with citizens spending an estimated €24bn (£19bn) every year on illicit drugs.
They say drug markets continue to be one of the most profitable areas for organised crime groups and impact on other types of criminal activities and terrorism, impact on legal businesses and the wider economy and place a strain on and corruption of government institutions.
The negative effects include drug-related crime and violence, environmental damage as well as harm to families and communities. The report says that while drug trafficking is rarely used as the main source of finance for terrorist groups in Europe, involvement in the drug trade may play a role in the radicalisation of second- or third-generation diaspora youth who may use their criminal networks in support of terrorist activities.
The analysis says cannabis is still the most widely used drug in Europe, accounting for about 38% of the market worth €9.3bn a year. Herbal cannabis grown on the continent dominates the market, although increasingly potent Moroccan cannabis resin continues to be imported into Europe.
It reports recent signs of an increasing availability of heroin in Europe, with opium production in Afghanistan remaining high and a shift to maritime container trafficking with new routes involving Africa, the southern Caucasus, Syria and Iraq.
Cocaine remains Europe’s most commonly used illicit stimulant with an estimated market value of €5.7bn. Its use remains relatively stable and concentrated in western and southern Europe.
“What is clear to us is that illicit drug markets remain one of the key threats to the security of the EU. Efforts to understand them and the key actors involved are essential if we are to make sound policy decisions that will have any lasting impact,” says a foreword by Rob Wainwright of Europol and Alexis Goosdeel of the EMCDDA.
“This report aims to improve that understanding and provide a platform for debate in the coming years. After all, drug markets are essentially driven by two simple motives: profit and power. The ability to undermine these motives is critical if we are to have any impact on drug-related crime and reduce the wider impacts on society,” they said.