Heroin still EU’s biggest drug problem.
The number of Europeans dying from drug overdoses has risen in most EU countries in recent years, amid growing concern that more heroin might be finding its way onto the European market. Most heroin found in Europe comes from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, which produced record amounts of opium in 2006 and 2007.
Most of the increases aren’t large but they are still a big change from early in the decade when on the whole overdose deaths were decreasing.
The number of overdose deaths recorded in EU countries rose to 6 873 in 2005 - up from 6 780 in 2004 and 6 350 in 2003. Most involve heroin, long a leading cause of death among young people in Europe, particularly males in urban areas.
The higher death toll is just one of several worrying signs. In its annual report on illicit drug use in Europe, Europe’s drugs watchdog – the EMCDDA - also mentions an increase in heroin seizures and in addicts seeking treatment. This flies in the face of previous assessments indicating Europe’s heroin problem was diminishing.
In general drug use remains historically high but Europe appears to be entering a more stable phase. About 2m young Europeans have tried amphetamines in the last year and around 2.5m have tried ecstasy - at worst a levelling off and perhaps an overall decline.
Cocaine use continues to rise, with an estimated 3.5m young Europeans (15-34) taking the drug in the last year. Cannabis (marijuana and hashish) remains the drug of choice, but its popularity appears to be declining. Some 17m Europeans (7%) have used cannabis in the last year, about one quarter on a regular basis.
Just how many heroin users there are in Europe is hard to say. The EMCDDA estimates that, in the EU and Norway, there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.7 million people using opium derivatives (morphine and heroin) and synthetic drugs with similar effects.
Although cannabis users far outnumber heroin users, heroin nonetheless remains the EU’s biggest drug problem in terms of both health and social costs. Besides being highly addictive and prone to overdose, it contributes to the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, both of which can be passed on through contaminated needles.
Europe’s drug monitoring capacities are among the most developed in the world. As the EU prepares to embark on a new EU drugs action plan (2009–12), an even better understanding of the challenges ahead is needed.