European crime gangs have adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic by changing their trafficking routes and relying on encrypted messaging services.
new report on the EU drug market has found that the impact of emergency health restrictions may also result in it being further digitalised.
It also says that organised crime groups are intensifying their illegal drug production with 370 illegal laboratories dismantled in 2019.
In its annual report the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) looked at trends during the pandemic.
They found that traffickers were adapting to travel restrictions by changing their routes and methods.
On a wholesale level there has been more reliance on smuggling via intermodal containers and commercial supply.
This, the EMCDDA said, has led to less reliance on the use of human couriers.
It also says that street-based retail drug markets were disrupted in early lockdowns with some localised shortages reported.
However, drug dealers and consumers “have adapted by increasing their use of encrypted messaging services, social media apps, online sources and mail and home delivery services”.
The report says this draws attention to whether a long-term impact of the pandemic could be “the further digitalisation of drug markets”.
It also raises specific concerns about the misuse of benzodiazepines.
The EMCDAA has noted an increase in their use among high-risk drug users, prisoners, and other groups of recreational users.
This reflects their high-availability and low cost and pandemic-related mental health issues, it said.
A record amount of cocaine was also seized in 2019, reflecting its increased use in Ireland and across the EU, with experts saying it is a “worrying signal” of potential for increased harm healths.
In 2019, around 213 tonnes of cocaine were seized, compared to 177 the previous years, with preliminary data for 202 suggesting that availability has not declined in the pandemic.
Cocaine purity has also increased and people are entering treatment for the first time.
The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that drugs were are a “persistent and ever-present threat” affecting millions of lives.
“The European Drug Report 2021 provides the latest evidence on this vital issue, which corrupts the fabric of our society, fuelling violence and risking the health and security of our citizens,” she said.
“I am particularly concerned by the highly pure and potent substances available on our streets and online and by the 46 new drugs detected in the EU in 2020 alone. With the new EU strategies on security and on drugs, our Member States will have robust tools to address this emergency through a balanced approach, tackling both supply and demand, supported by the EMCDDA,” Ms Johansson added.
The Director of the EMCDDA, Alexis Goosdeel, said their report illustrates how much the drug market has changed in the past 25 years, describing illegal substances has a “highly pervasive” issue.
“We are witnessing a dynamic and adaptive drug market, resilient to COVID-19 restrictions. We are also seeing patterns of drug use that are increasingly complex, as consumers are exposed to a wider range of highly potent natural and synthetic substances,” Mr Goosedeel said.
He added that it is crucial that an integrated response across the areas of social, health and security is introduced by the new EU drugs strategy.