EU Drug Market: Drivers and facilitators

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EMCDDA and Europol logo

EU Drug Market: Drivers and facilitators provides an overview of the key factors influencing the operation of the markets for illicit drugs in the European Union. It considers the changes and developments happening in the wider environment in which the illicit drug market is embedded (drivers), and the people or processes (facilitators) that make it easier to commit drug-related criminality or avoid detection. The focus of the report is on identifying key issues and presenting recommendations for action at EU and Member State level.

This resource is part of EU Drug Markets: In-depth analysis, the fourth comprehensive overview of illicit drug markets in the European Union by the EMCDDA and Europol.

Last update: 30 May 2024

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The global illicit drug market is becoming increasingly complex, adaptable and innovative. The process of globalisation, whereby entities become interconnected through communication, trade and transport, is also reflected in globally interconnected drug production and trafficking networks. Innovations across the criminal supply chain also continue to present transformational opportunities for criminal networks in key areas such as criminal logistics and cooperation. These include innovations in the production of synthetic, semi-synthetic and plant-based drugs, and the use of novel precursors and chemicals to produce and chemically mask illicit substances. In addition, innovations in the use of technology, such as communication and information technologies and end-to-end encryption, provide further opportunities for criminal networks while posing a complex challenge for law enforcement. The use of key tools, such as firearms, encrypted communication solutions and fraudulent documents, is also a major enabler of criminal activities contributing to the increasing threat to society. Taken together, developments across these areas have created an environment in which criminal networks are highly resilient. As seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal networks are capable of rapidly adapting and taking advantage of different circumstances.


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Globalisation is the process by which entities become globally interconnected through networks of communication, trade and transportation. It has a significant effect on illicit drug markets, as criminal networks exploit globalisation to gain similar benefits to participants in the legal economy. Globalisation facilitates drug supply by providing opportunities for criminal cooperation and integration along the supply chain, thus improving efficiency.

Infrastructure development and innovation in transportation technology continue to have a significant impact on illicit drug markets. While innovation in transportation and logistics technology enables cheaper, faster and more efficient criminal operations, allowing large quantities of illicit drugs to be moved, it can also provide opportunities for interdiction by law enforcement authorities.

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Technology and innovation

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Innovations in drug production and supply are generating higher outputs, products with higher potency or purity, and a broader range of consumer products. The exploitation and use of unscheduled chemicals and precursors also pose complex challenges to law enforcement.

Criminal networks have also capitalised on developments in the digital sphere and other opportunities offered by technological innovation. This can be seen in the way drug distribution models are continually being adapted to profit from a growing pool of potential online buyers. While recent evidence suggests that the importance of darknet markets may be diminishing, social media and instant messaging apps appear to be gaining prominence. The precise extent of their use for drug distribution remains unknown and further research and monitoring is needed in this area.

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Criminal tools

Drug-trafficking criminal networks use a range of equipment and techniques to facilitate their activities. These include weapons and explosives, which are key to criminal networks in their operations, for example in settling scores or disputes with rival networks. The online environment also provides access to expertise and tools that enable criminal activities and allow criminal networks to innovate and adapt their behaviour, for example by using encrypted communication. The use of fraudulent documents also plays a key role in enabling criminal activities, with dedicated networks providing such documents as a service to other criminals.

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Key findings

  • The EU illicit drug market has undergone a fundamental transformation in recent years. This has been driven by globalisation, innovation and technological developments as well as by geopolitical instability, conflicts and environmental changes. The market is now characterised by highly resilient and adaptable criminal networks that continually exploit new opportunities for drug production, trafficking and distribution.
  • International criminal networks continue to exploit globalised processes and information technology in particular, improving operational efficiency and finding opportunities to remotely coordinate their activities.
  • Cooperation and the use of crime-as-a-service in drug markets have become pivotal for criminal networks seeking to expand and operate on an international level. The exploitation of legal business structures also plays a key role, with criminal actors facilitating access to legal businesses to enable drug production, trafficking and distribution.
  • External shocks caused by conflict, instability and economic turmoil have led to a reconfiguration of trafficking routes, potentially impacting on prices, purity and the availability of different products along the supply chain.
  • Novel techniques and technologies employed in the production of both plant-based and synthetic drugs are key facilitators for the illicit drugs trade, enabling higher yields and products with increased potency or purity.
  • The use of unscheduled chemicals, either to produce the precursors required for synthetic drugs or to synthesise these drugs directly, continues to present a complex regulatory challenge.
  • Concealing drugs through ‘chemical masking’ poses new difficulties for law enforcement and customs. It is likely that there will be further innovation in this area by criminal networks.
  • Digital technology remains a key driver of innovation in drug markets and at all stages of the drug supply chain. Criminal networks are able to incorporate developments in digital technology in their criminal processes and modi operandi, for coordinating illicit container shipments across the globe, or for communicating via encrypted solutions, for example. The use of artificial intelligence to facilitate illicit drug production or distribution is a threat worthy of serious consideration.
  • While recent evidence suggests that the importance of darknet markets has diminished, other platforms appear to be gaining prominence as new spaces for online drug markets. For example, social media and instant communication platforms are exploited for drug trafficking in multiple ways, from communication, advertising and sales, to recruitment of facilitators.
  • Drug-trafficking criminal networks use a range of equipment and techniques to facilitate their activities, including weapons and explosives, encrypted communication devices and fraudulent documents. In some cases, criminals collaborate with other networks and individuals that possess such tools or capacities and provide them as a service.

Methodology and references

© EMCDDA, Europol, 2024
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Methodology: Read more about the methodology used to collect data in this analysis.

References: Consult the list of references used in this resource.

Abbreviations: Consult the list of acronyms and other abbreviations used in EU Drug Markets: In-depth analysis.

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Recommended citation: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol (2024), EU Drug Market: Drivers and facilitators…


HTML: TD-05-23-556-EN-Q
ISBN: 978-92-9497-963-6
DOI: 10.2810/219567