EU Drug Markets: Drivers and facilitators — new report unveils dynamics of illicit drug market

In a new report out today, EU Drug Markets: Drivers and facilitators, the EMCDDA and Europol, provide valuable insights into the evolving landscape of drug production, trafficking and distribution. The report is a key element in the EU Drug Markets: In-depth analysis from the two agencies, their fourth comprehensive overview of illicit drug markets in the EU. The analysis focuses on three main market drivers: globalisation, technology and innovation, and criminal tools.

Globalisation — The report illustrates how globalisation has had a profound impact on illicit drug markets, with criminals exploiting communication, trade and transportation networks to expand their operations and improve efficiency. A key aspect of globalisation is the interconnectedness of global supply chains caused by the digitalisation of international logistics. Here, the role played by information technology in checking and managing traffic flows at seaports and airports has intensified criminals' pursuit of accessing automated logistics systems. Criminals overcome access controls through the corruption of key staff through bribes or extortion, or by hacking into maritime and air traffic computer networks. They also often exploit legal business structures or rely on specialised services provided by other networks or brokers to facilitate their illicit activities. This well-established 'crime-as-a-service' approach has become pivotal for criminal groups seeking to expand and operate on an international level.

Technology and innovation — Innovation in drug production and supply are driving higher yields and more diverse consumer products, often with greater potency or purity. The report highlights how criminal networks continue to introduce novel chemicals to modify plant-based and synthetic drugs, posing complex challenges for law enforcement. Innovation in the chemical concealment of drugs also significantly complicates detection and interdiction. Digital technology remains a key driver of innovation in drug markets at all stages of the supply chain. Criminal networks leverage technological innovation to conceal illicit communication, improve drug distribution models and reduce risk. Recent evidence suggests that, while the importance of darknet markets may be diminishing (1), the use of other online sources, such as social media and instant messaging apps, is becoming more prominent for the retail sale and supply of drugs.

Criminal tools — Drug-trafficking criminal networks use a wide range of tools and techniques to facilitate their activities. These include weapons and explosives, encrypted communication devices and fraudulent documents. The harm caused by the use of illicit firearms by criminal networks involved in the drugs trade is both direct and indirect. Direct impacts include killings and injuries, which may occur during disputes between rival gangs over territories, while indirect impacts include intimidation and coercion of victims. Firearm violence between groups involved in street-level drug distribution has resulted in collateral casualties, who may be innocent bystanders.

Developments across these three areas create an environment in which criminal networks are highly resilient and capable of rapidly adapting to changing circumstances. This report underscores the need for coordinated efforts at national, regional, and international level to combat the multifaceted challenges posed by the evolving EU drug market. It also aims to help policymakers, law enforcement agencies and stakeholders in adapting strategies and enhancing cooperation to safeguard public health and security in the face of illicit drug markets.

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