EU Drug Market: Heroin and other opioids — In-depth analysis

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EU Drug Market: Heroin and other opioids describes the European opioids market from production and trafficking to distribution and use. It details the processes, materials and players involved at various stages and levels of the market. The module takes a threat assessment approach, identifying key issues and defining recommendations for action at EU and Member State level.

This resource is a module 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: January 2024

Table of contents



Book page with text and the word 'Opioids' in bold and part of a chemical structure

Illicit opioid use remains a major concern in Europe, primarily fuelled by heroin but also involving other opioids. The heroin retail market was estimated to be worth at least EUR 5.2 billion in 2021, with an estimated 1 million high-risk opioid users in the EU. Opioid use is linked to a significant proportion of drug-related harms, accounting for 25 % of those entering specialised drug treatment and reported in 74 % of drug-related deaths in 2021. The associated burdens on society are considerable, encompassing health harms, crime and marginalisation, as well as the infiltration of legal sectors of the economy by criminal networks. While the heroin market is broadly stable, there is uncertainty about the impact of the evolving political and security situation in Afghanistan, a key heroin source for the EU. There is potential for shifts in drug supply and use patterns.

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Key findings and threat assessment

In 2021, opioids – and heroin in particular – were a major factor in the harms related to illicit drug use in the EU, present in 74 % of overdose deaths. Approximately 1 million adults in the EU were identified as high-risk opioid users in that year. The opioid market is increasingly complex, including diverted medicines and synthetic opioids, leading to an increased risk of problems to users. Despite seized heroin quantities doubling from 2011 to 2021, retail prices dropped while purity increased, indicating a stable heroin supply in European countries. Afghanistan remains the primary source of heroin for Europe, although recent political and security developments there could affect the European heroin market. Traffickers adjust routes and methods to minimise risk and exploit new opportunities. While the Balkan route remains active for heroin trafficking, activity on the Southern route is increasing, utilising maritime containers and multiple transhipment points. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a significant transhipment point and hub for criminal activities. Turkish criminal networks, alongside various other networks, dominate wholesale heroin trafficking to Europe, exploiting legal businesses to legitimise criminal activities and facilitate trafficking operations.

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Heroin and other opioids in the global context

It is estimated that in 2021, there were around 60.4 million non-medical users of opioids worldwide, of whom around 31.5 million were users of opiates. Until recently, the vast majority of the global illicit opium poppy cultivation (74 %) and opium production (80 %) has occurred in Afghanistan. Based on 2023 data, the situation has drastically changed. Myanmar has been consistently a distant second, but in 2023, emerged as a leading global producer due to the changes in Afghanistan.

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Production of opioids

Opium plantation

Until 2022, Afghanistan was consistently the country where both illicit opium poppy cultivation and opium production were highest at the global level. However, in 2023, a significant decline was recorded in Afghan opium poppy cultivation and production. While estimates of heroin production are difficult to ascertain due to gaps in data, it is believed that production predominantly occurs in Afghanistan. However, significant opiate seizures in the neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan indicate that heroin is manufactured in these countries as well. In terms of synthetic opioids, the three main source countries for European drug markets are believed to be China, India and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Some production of synthetic opioids, including new synthetic opioids, may occasionally occur in the EU, although currently this would appear to be marginal.

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Trafficking and supply of heroin and other opioids

drug containers

While the overall number of heroin seizures has declined markedly since 2011, record quantities are now being seized in Europe. This indicates that large heroin shipments are being sent to the EU, and these tend to be concentrated along four established routes. The relative importance of routes varies over time, and sections of them can be combined to create new trafficking pathways, influenced by a number of geopolitical, social and economic factors. Information related to these routes is often fragmentary and based on data gathered through activities undertaken by law enforcement agencies. Synthetic opioids sold on EU markets appear to originate largely from outside Europe, with the exception of opioid medications. Similar to the trafficking of heroin, it appears that shipments of synthetic opioids enter the EU through key logistics hubs. New synthetic opioids are consistently detected within Europe, and some of these pose a significant public health threat due to their high potency. The potential presence of these drugs in very small quantities may complicate detection using routine analytical methods and techniques.

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Criminal networks operating in the heroin market

Criminal networks involved in the illicit heroin market are business-oriented, cooperative and adaptable. Many different networks are involved in heroin trafficking activities along the extensive supply chain from production zones to EU consumer markets. As with other drug types, the key enablers of the illicit heroin market are legal business structures, money laundering and corruption.

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Key market data: heroin prices, purities and offences

Price and purity are key metrics of wholesale heroin markets. Overall, indexed trends indicate that the average purity of heroin rose by 38 % between 2011 and 2021 and that its price dropped by 16 %. This indicates a stable supply of heroin to the EU market. In 2021, the mean purity of heroin at retail level ranged from 16 % to 24 %, and the mean price ranged from EUR 24 to EUR 45 per gram, although price and purity varied widely across Europe, both within and between countries. Evidence indicates that heroin adulteration occurs along the heroin supply chain and that criminal networks in Europe specialise in providing traffickers with cutting mixtures for heroin. The number of heroin offences reported in the EU has declined since 2011. This may have been influenced by a range of factors, such as changes in recording or reporting or other economic, political and institutional factors.

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Heroin retail markets

Hands holding a syringe

In Europe, heroin is the most common opioid sold on the illicit opioid market and is predominantly available in its base form. Most frequently, heroin is smoked or injected. In most countries, it appears that the number of people who use heroin is quite stable, indicating an ageing cohort of users. However, the use of heroin is associated with a disproportionate amount of drug-related harm.

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Actions to address current threats and increase preparedness

A hand holding a light bulb in form of a human head

The analysis of the EU illicit opioid market supports a number of conclusions with regard to the protection of public health and security. In particular, it is necessary to improve the intelligence picture on opium poppy cultivation and opiate production in Afghanistan, as well as on the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. A robust framework is needed for monitoring changes in the EU opioid market and the health and social risks posed by synthetic opioids to increase preparedness and address public health and security threats caused by potential shifts in the opioid market. There is also a need to invest in capacity building and research by allocating appropriate human resources to operational and strategic responses, fostering technological innovation and further enhancing international cooperation.

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Source data

All of the source data used in graphics and data tables may be found on each page as well as in our Data catalogue.

Methodology and references

© EMCDDA, Europol, 2024
For further information on copyright and reuse, please see our legal notice.

Methodology: Read more about the methodology used to collect data in this analysis.

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

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

Photo credits:

Recommended citation: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol (2024), EU Drug Market: Heroin and other opioids — In-depth analysis…


HTML: TD-04-23-766-EN-Q
ISBN: 978-92-9497-877-6
DOI: 10.2810/217566