EU Drug Market: Heroin and other opioids — Actions to address current threats and increase preparedness

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The data available strongly support a number of overall conclusions.

  • Heroin remains Europe’s most commonly used illicit opioid and is responsible for a large share of the health and social burden associated with illicit drug use within the EU.
  • Heroin availability appears to be relatively high in many EU countries. However, in some EU countries, other opioids – including new highly potent synthetic opioids – are now available on the illicit drug market and are associated with serious harms, including dependence, morbidity and mortality.
  • Reduction in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan could lead to heroin shortages in Europe and increased demand for harmful synthetic opioids, which, without adequate responses and mitigation, may have serious implications for public health and security.
  • Overall, intelligence on heroin, and specifically that related to routes, networks and modi operandi, is insufficient at present, particularly on stages of trafficking that take place outside the EU. Meanwhile, the growing complexity of routes and the multitude of transhipment points for heroin consignments headed for the EU add another layer of challenges to law enforcement action.

To respond to the current and future threats, the following actions are required.

Improve the intelligence picture: detection, monitoring and analysis

  • Strengthen EU preparedness by enhancing the capacity to rapidly identify and respond to emerging health and security threats from developments in the opioid market. This requires a multi-indicator approach combining statistical data, including on seizures, price and purity, with other monitoring methods, such as information on hospital emergencies, syringe residue analysis, drug checking and monitoring of online distribution channels.
  • Enhance Europe’s monitoring and understanding of opium poppy cultivation and opiate production in Afghanistan to anticipate and effectively address the opioid threat in the EU, including its immediate and longer-term impacts on security and health.
  • Improve the intelligence on heroin trafficking to the EU from Afghanistan – and, importantly, from Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries – with a focus on enhancing the ability to better identify and target suspicious consignments.
  • Further prioritise the detection of heroin at EU borders by increasing awareness and investing in strengthened risk analysis and profiling capacity at land border crossing points located on heroin trafficking routes into the EU and at European seaports.
  • Improve the intelligence picture regarding heroin smuggling via ferries into the EU by mapping the maritime routes between Türkiye and Europe to identify vulnerable and likely entry ports. This will allow for the strategic allocation of resources to disrupt trafficking effectively.
  • Leverage technology at key logistical hubs and land border crossing points to enhance the targeting of consignments and improve the operational efficiency of scanning, detecting and intercepting opioids.
  • Further invest in the identification, mapping and profiling of criminal networks that are active in heroin, synthetic opioid and precursor trafficking and distribution. This will facilitate the identification of high-risk criminal networks and high-value targets and support the prioritisation of operational resources.
  • Strengthen the monitoring and understanding of heroin production in the EU and the exploitation by criminal networks of the availability of infrastructure for producing synthetic drugs and of acetic anhydride to produce heroin within the EU. This requires improved information-sharing concerning seizures of acetic anhydride and laboratories associated with heroin production.
  • Enhance data collection of key market indicators, in particular the price and purity of heroin at various levels of the market in the EU and beyond.
  • Improve the monitoring, analysis and chemical profiling of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and its derivatives and benzimidazole opioids (nitazenes), to better track their proliferation on the EU market. This should include strengthened testing in overdose toxicology examinations and profiling from seizures, online sales, production sites and the diversion of opioids from legal sources.
  • Invest in enhancing the understanding of precursor flows, for the production of both heroin and synthetic opioids, through chemical profiling. This requires strengthened European forensic capacity, forensic networks and information-sharing.
  • Increase awareness and further strengthen the monitoring of the diversion and misuse of opioid-containing medicines to better anticipate and assess their potential impact on the complex opioid market in Europe.

Strengthen responses to reduce supply and enhance security

  • Strengthen operational responses in the EU through targeted actions to deter, disrupt and dismantle criminal networks involved in trafficking opioids and relevant precursors.
  • Leverage existing partnerships and enhance cooperation and coordinated efforts through EMPACT and other relevant European instruments, in particular operational task forces and joint investigation teams, pooling the resources of national authorities, EU agencies and participating strategic partners.
  • Prioritise investigations into high-value targets and criminal networks involved in heroin trafficking. In addition, it is important to target brokers and specialised networks providing crime-as-a-service to criminals orchestrating heroin trafficking in the EU.
  • Take steps to reduce the influence of criminal networks and prevent recruitment into organised crime through multidisciplinary and inter-agency approaches to crime prevention.
  • Strengthen law enforcement responses to maritime heroin trafficking by increasing operational capacities in key entry hubs. This includes improving methods to identify suspicious consignments and enhancing the monitoring and awareness of rerouted maritime containers.
  • Further enhance efforts to monitor and disrupt the online distribution of synthetic opioids, by targeting both darknet markets and the supply via social media and e-commerce platforms.
  • Strengthen public-private partnerships to increase the resilience of logistics hubs and to prevent criminal networks exploiting legal business structures for the trafficking and distribution of opioids and precursors, as well as for the diversion of precursors.
  • Enhance financial investigations into money laundering in parallel with investigations into the trafficking of heroin and synthetic opioids. There is a need to improve the targeting of criminal revenues, including continued efforts to fully implement the European regulatory framework.

Strengthen international cooperation

  • Further enhance international cooperation between Member States, the EU – including relevant agencies – and key international partners working to reduce the supply of heroin by strengthening and further operationalising existing mechanisms. This should be based on active engagement and timely exchange of operational and strategic information to coordinate operational and strategic responses to opioid trafficking and associated illicit financial flows.
  • Strengthen coordination between relevant law enforcement agencies, both within and outside the EU, that are pivotal to combating heroin trafficking, to actively promote and strengthen capabilities and preparedness for cross-border investigations, including controlled deliveries, judicial cooperation and mutually coordinated intelligence-based operations.
  • Strengthen collaboration and information-sharing with authorities and private stakeholders at key transhipment points along trafficking routes for opioids and related precursors, to prevent the exploitation of logistics chains for criminal activities.
  • Improve the exchange of operational and strategic information between international partners concerning seizures of heroin, morphine, opium, synthetic opioids and precursors, raising awareness of new modi operandi and concealment methods employed by criminal networks.
  • Make full use of existing EU-funded operational coordination platforms and programmes, including initiatives specifically focused on heroin. Information from these projects should be used to inform EU analyses and responses.

Invest in capacity building

  • Improve forensic capabilities at Member State and EU level. Greater efforts are needed to harmonise the routine forensic analysis of heroin and synthetic opioid seizures in Europe in order to support the collection and reporting of comparable data and to improve strategic analyses. This should include the ability to distinguish between the base and hydrochloride forms of heroin.
  • Develop awareness and invest in training and technical capabilities. This should include the training of law enforcement personnel at EU and Member State level on the indicators of heroin trafficking and related flows of precursors and finances (including virtual currencies).
  • Strengthen investigative tools and raise awareness on identifying and preventing the diversion of acetic anhydride for heroin production. This requires engagement among a range of stakeholders, notably from industry, law enforcement and precursor control organisations.
  • Invest in the establishment and implementation of a profiling methodology for the identification of heroin trafficking where legal business structures are exploited by criminal networks to divert precursors or chemicals used to produce opioids.
  • Invest in setting up platforms for the rapid and secure exchange of actionable information to facilitate joint analyses combining research and monitoring data with law enforcement information. The resulting knowledge would inform policy responses, advance operational efforts and guide further research priorities.
  • Increase investment in strategic analysis using information collected during operations involving seizures of heroin, synthetic opioids, acetic anhydride and other precursors, both inside and outside the EU.
  • Further invest in research and development of screening tools and other techniques and technologies (such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced data modelling) to streamline processes, improve effectiveness and support interdictions and investigations at ports, at airports, in post and parcel services, as well as on darknet markets, social media and e-commerce platforms.
  • Invest in awareness-raising and training to prevent and respond to risks from occupational exposure to potent synthetic opioids in a range of operational settings. This may include training for relevant personnel – including those in law enforcement – in first aid and how to use naloxone.

Strengthen policy, public health and safety responses

  • Raise stakeholders’ awareness and promote the prioritisation of opioid-related problems in the EU. Vigilance and preparedness are required due to the potentially significant threats posed by rapid changes in consumption patterns of established drugs, such as heroin, and of new synthetic opioids. This includes increased preparedness of Member States and relevant EU agencies to respond to threats posed by the opioid market.
  • Further strengthen and expand prevention strategies and the provision of evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, rehabilitation and social reintegration interventions, including those addressing patterns of polydrug use among those with opioid dependence. Harm reduction measures should aim to prevent overdose and infectious diseases.
  • Strengthen existing safe opioid prescription guidelines to prevent escalation of prescription opioid use in Europe and to maintain access for those in need of such medicines. There is a need to increase vigilance to prevent and identify potential diversion from the legitimate supply chain for opioid medicines.
  • Further efforts to destigmatise existing evidence-based treatment and harm reduction modalities to ensure appropriate coverage and availability, and more equitable access.
  • Take a future-oriented approach to anticipate possible shifts in opioid supply and demand patterns in the EU. Planning and risk assessment are required to identify potential vulnerabilities and put in place preventive measures.


Consult the list of references used in this module.