Pandemic fails to halt drug flows, record cocaine hauls: EU agency

Paris (AFP) –


Record seizures of cocaine indicate that the drug is more available than ever in Europe, and there is little sign that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted smugglers and dealers, the EU narcotics agency said Tuesday.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction's annual report also noted large seizures of heroin as well as a scaling up of synthetic drug production.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, organised crime groups had "quickly adapted their modi operandi" to keep up the cultivation, smuggling and sale of drugs.

"There are fears that innovative drug distribution models developed during lockdown, along with the economic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities, will add to the challenges already posed by an abundant supply of drugs," the agency said.

Increased seizures of large quantities of cocaine, cannabis resin and heroin -- transported by sea -- raised concerns that organised crime was infiltrating legitimate supply chains, shipping routes and large ports.

Cocaine purity has increased and cocaine seizures were at an all-time high of 181 tonnes in 2018, the year for which data is examined in the 2020 report, some 40 tonnes more than in 2017.

"Indicators point to high availability of cocaine on the European market and signs of growth in countries where it was previously uncommon," the report said.

- Synthetics on the rise -

The volume of heroin seized in the EU nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018, the report added.

While street dealing had been affected by restrictions during the height of the pandemic, it said consumers and dealers had been turning to online "darknet" markets, social media and home delivery.

Smuggling by plane declined, but trafficking by ship "continued at pre-pandemic levels," it said.

Seizures and intelligence data did not suggest "any immediate major disruption" to drug trafficking activities using methods such as concealing drugs in shipping containers.

Synthetic drug production and cannabis cultivation in Europe also "did not appear to be seriously affected".

The report warned that "the events of 2020 are likely to have a long-term impact on the future challenges arising in the drugs area".

During the pandemic there were signs of "declining interest in substances like MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) and cocaine that are commonly used in social settings".

But there were also reports of a greater use of more novel substances such as the psychoactive drug benzodiazepines, "possibly driven in part by shortages of more established drugs".

"We must be concerned that... as the economic repercussions of the crisis take effect, some in our communities may become more vulnerable to drug problems," agency director Alexis Goosdeel said.