The production of cocaine is no longer an offshore affair. With the increased availability of the drug in the EU, what does it mean for consumption?
But traditional cocaine trafficking routes are changing, and so is Europe’s role in drug production and trade. These changes are leading to the historically high availability of the drug on the continent, according to the European Union’s drugs agency EMCDDA and Europol.
Europe is now playing a role in the production of cocaine – not only distribution – as well as collaborating with criminal groups in the bloc to expand markets, the agencies have said.
“Our new analyses show that we are now facing a growing threat from a more diverse and dynamic drug market, that is driven by closer collaboration between European and international criminal organisations,” EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel in a statement.
“This has resulted in record levels of drug availability, rising violence and corruption, and greater health problems”. Cocaine is now Europe’s second most commonly consumed illicit drug after cannabis, with a market retail estimated at €10.5 billion. But what does this availability mean for consumption in the bloc and which country is worst hit by addiction?
Which EU country consumes cocaine the most? Cocaine consumption levels vary between countries, but they are at their highest in the south and west of the continent.
According to the latest estimates from the EMCDDA, about 14 million adults in the EU aged 15-64 – close to 5 per cent – have tried cocaine during their lifetimes.
About 3.5 million consumed the drug in the last year, according to the latest European Drug Report published last year.
Out of the 3.5 million Europeans that consumed cocaine in the last year, 2.2 million were young adults aged between 15 and 34 years old.
Cocaine prevalence is especially high in Austria, where 5.6 per cent of the young adult population consumed the drug during the period 2021-2022, followed by Ireland (4.8 per cent), Croatia (3.9 per cent), Netherlands (3.5 per cent), Spain and France (3.2 per cent.)
Spanish adults are the most likely to consume cocaine during their lifetime with 11.2 per cent, followed by those residing in Ireland (8.3 per cent).
The countries with the lowest prevalence of coke consumption are in Eastern Europe. In Poland and Lithuania, only 0.7 per cent of adults will consume the drug in their lifetime, followed by Slovakia (0.9 per cent).
Malta (0.5 per cent) also has notably low levels of consumption over a person’s lifetime. It is the general norm that men outnumber women among drug users, and so is the case for cocaine consumption. According to EMCDDA, 7.8 per cent of men will consume cocaine during their lifetime, compared with 5.2 per cent of women.
Cocaine is white, not dark; sniffed not injected; consumed in trendy discos, not in cities’ gutters; it is the mental fuel of society’s winners, not the dope of losers,” Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, famously said.
“[But] drug addiction is a disease and must be prevented and treated like any other illness, like tuberculosis or HIV. Drug control is not a moral issue. It is not a political or ideological issue – there should be no political left or right. It is a health issue”.
Over 50,000 people entered rehab treatment for cocaine abuse in Europe, according to the 2021 European Drug Report: 15 per cent were women, and 85 per cent men.
The mean age for first treatment entry is 35 years old, more than a decade after the mean age when users first consume at 23 years old.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a fair reduction in cocaine use, likely because of the closure of night spots and entertainment venues. However, recent analyses suggest that usage levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Record amounts of cocaine continue to be seized every year, notably in Antwerp in Belgium, the leading port for cocaine seizures in Europe.
This continued increase, the EMCDDA says, combined with other indicators, suggests that the upward trend in the availability of this drug observed over the last few years has not changed.
Drug deaths overall in the EU
The mortality rate due to drug overdoses in the European Union, as noted in the 2022 European Drug Report, was estimated at 15 deaths per million in the adult population, the equivalent of over 5,800 yearly deaths involving one or more illicit drugs.
That estimate rises to more than 6,400 deaths when non-EU members Norway and Turkey are included. When we look at the evolution of drug-induced mortality rates per million among adults, an upward curve becomes apparent since 2012, with a peak in 2017 before dropping slightly back down. However, despite the rapid “recovery” after 2017, mortality rates remain higher when compared to 2012.
An increase in drug-induced mortality rates has been noted overall, particularly among teenagers and all age categories above 35. The 50-64 age group also saw a significant surge, recording an 82 per cent increase.
EMCDDA says this reflects the ageing nature of Europe’s opioid-using population in most countries.
These deaths among drug users are considered mostly premature, predominantly affecting people in their thirties and forties. Men account for three-quarters of them.
Drug-related mortality is a complex definition because there are two components present; deaths directly caused by illegal drugs and those who die from drug-related causes, for example, people who lose their lives due to diseases spread by sharing needles like AIDS and hepatitis.
The drug-induced deaths definition the EMCDDA uses is “people who die directly due to use of illegal substances,” although they clarify these often occur in combination with other substances, such as alcohol or psychoactive medicines.
The EMCDDA attributes this partly to the size of the at-risk populations in these countries, but also to under-reporting in certain other countries.
In terms of a gender split, 21 per cent of drug-induced deaths were women and 79 per cent were men; 39 per cent of them were between 25-39 years old, and 45 per cent were between 40 and 64, with a mean age of 41 years old.