Europe's rising addiction to illicit drugs has digital roots

Some EU member states have invested in improving the availability and sensitivity of toxicological data that gives a better understanding.

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)

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Published: Sat 15 Jun 2019, 8:28 PM

Last updated: Sat 15 Jun 2019, 10:31 PM

An "uberisation" of cocaine trafficking is underway in Europe as dealers are increasingly using sophisticated technology to attract customers with promises of faster delivery, better quality, and secure communications.
The retail cocaine trade has evolved into a 'highly competitive market'. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) notes in its latest annual report that readily available technologies are changing the process.
A look at the quantity and purity of cocaine seized by police, for instance, indicates the changing nature of the drug trade. Illicit drug is being shipped to Europe from South America and Mexico, locations that are further ahead in distance compared with traditional markets such as the United States. "A reorganisation of the cocaine supply chain and the players involved is visible at the middle and retail level, with the emergence of fragmented, loose and more horizontal organisational structures," said the EMCDDA report. "Smaller groups have been able to enter the market by using a range of information technology like encryption, darknet market places, social media for dealing and cryptocurrencies."
Alexis Goosdeel, head of the center, told a press conference last week that use of synthetic drugs and drug production within Europe itself are also "growing in importance".
EU member states seized 140 tonnes of cocaine in 2017. Of this, almost 45 tonnes was impounded in Belgium, and 41 tonnes in Spain. Trafficking through shipping containers is a "major challenge", the report said. Organised crime syndicates, particularly the 'Ndrangheta mafia clan based in Italy's Calabria region, have established working relationships with narco-traffickers in Mexico to import large qualities of cocaine into Europe. Much of it enters through the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Dutch police estimate that 25 to 50 per cent of the cocaine reaching Europe now arrives through Rotterdam, which handles around 11 million containers a year, but only a tiny fraction are inspected.
With a steady pipeline of supply in place, dealers no longer entirely depend on clandestine relationships and street sales to move the drug. Increasingly sophisticated tech has forced policing into the digital world as well.
The EU police agency Europol worked with counterparts in the US to arrest two suspected administrators of a website known as DeepDotWeb on May 6 in Paris and Israel. Both Israeli citizens, they were charged by a US federal grand jury with money laundering relating to millions of dollars they received for sales of drugs and other illegal goods. The website provided hundreds of thousands of users with direct access to numerous online darknet marketplaces.
Among the more alarming discoveries was the website's connections to trade in the opioid fentanyl, a synthetic drug linked to an epidemic in overdose deaths in the US. While nowhere near the same scale in Europe, the EMCDDA report said opioids are a growing problem on the continent as well.
Twenty percent of those entering drug treatment for an opioid-related problem now report a synthetic opioid, not heroin, is their main problem drug, yet "the current capacity to detect and report the availability, use and consequences of synthetic opioids remain limited in Europe," it said.
Some EU member states, particularly in northern Europe, have invested in improving the availability and sensitivity of toxicological data that gives a better understanding.
Most of the 8,200 drug overdose deaths in Europe last year were due to opioids, more than three-quarters of them likely heroin induced, according to Julian Vicente, a researcher who took part in the EMCDDA study.
How to fight the problem has been subject of intense debate for years. Researcher Henrik Jungaberle said Germany uses a four-pronged model pioneered in Switzerland. Combining prevention, therapy, control and repression, it offers "tolerance zones" for addicts to inject drugs using clean needles as well as access to social support and counselling.
Portugal was once seen as the most blighted country in Europe for drugs with an estimated one per cent of its population addicted to heroin. Now it's lauded as public health success story. Twenty years ago, hundreds died of overdoses every year, says Dr Joao Goulao, a public health physician who helped turn the situation around. A decade later, the number of addicts was halved and overdose deaths dropped to 30 a year.
Goulao's controversial recommendation was to entirely decriminalise drug use in combination with treatment and rehabilitation. The EMCDDA says Portugal's mortality rate from drugs is now more than four times lower than the European average. Yet, formally enabling drug use is not widely supported across Europe. Hardworking, tax-paying citizens are instinctively opposed to the notion.
Overall the drug agency's report paints a picture of progress in fighting heroin and transmittable diseases related to needle use, but a growing affinity for cocaine delivered through increasingly sophisticated channels.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, says the report presents a "worrying picture with no time to spare" in moves to counter the "digitalisation in the drug market".
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at

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