SOCTA 2017

Drug markets remain the largest criminal markets in the EU. More than one third of the criminal groups active in the EU are involved in the production, trafficking or distribution of various types of drugs. The trade in drugs generates multi-billion euro profits for the groups involved in this criminal activity. The EU retail drug market is estimated to be worth at least EUR 24 billion a year. 22 The immense profits generated from the trade in drugs fund various other criminal activities allowing OCGs to thrive and develop their criminal enterprises at the expense of the health, prosperity and security of EU citizens.

OCGs involved in drug trafficking heavily rely on corruption to facilitate their trafficking activities. They also make use of fraudulent documents such as fake import or company registration certificates to import illicit drugs among legal goods, to procure pre-precursors and purchase equipment used as part of production processes.

Cannabis img


Cannabis remains, by far, the most widely consumed illegal drug in the EU. 23 Cannabis is distributed on EU markets as cannabis resin and herbal cannabis. In recent years, herbal cannabis has been increasingly popular with consumers, which has led to an increase in the production and availability of herbal cannabis within the EU and in countries close to EU markets.

Growing equipment, seeds and other raw materials used for cannabis cultivation in the EU are readily available online and often originate from the Netherlands. The indoor cultivation of herbal cannabis in the EU is expected to further expand over the coming years with new growing techniques and increasingly sophisticated growing technologies being used by OCGs in order to increase harvest yields and profits. Outdoor cultivation of herbal cannabis remains limited compared to the indoor cultivation of cannabis.

Albania remains the main source of herbal cannabis trafficked to the EU. The main source of cannabis resin consumed in the EU is Morocco from where it is trafficked to the EU primarily by sea and road transport. Cannabis resin originating from Morocco is increasingly smuggled to the EU across the Mediterranean Sea departing from Libya. Cannabis resin shipments are transported across the Mediterranean Sea to the Spanish coast using high-powered vessels where they are dropped into the sea and retrieved by OCGs on local fishing vessels or pleasure boats using GPS signalling devices.


In December 2016, a multinational police team including Europol announced the arrest of a major Moroccan drug kingpin. The work that led to this arrest began in April 2016. The Moroccan national had orchestrated a multi-tonne drug delivery. This is the latest successful result achieved by JOT ’Rose of the Winds’. Approximately one week prior to his apprehension, the Spanish Guardia Civil, supported by Europol, the French Direction Nationale du Renseignement et des Enquêtes Douanières and the Italian Guardia di Finanza, localised and intercepted a merchant vessel flying the flag of Panama. The ship was subsequently escorted to the port of Almeria, where a thorough search revealed the illegal cargo of 19.6 tonnes of cannabis resin. The crew were arrested and the shipment was seized. The investigations also revealed a poly-crime involvement of the transnational organised crime networks active in large-scale drug trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea. Namely, concrete and recurrent links with migrant smuggling and cocaine trafficking have been ascertained.

The market for cannabis remains by far the largest drug market in the EU.

cannabis herb


Production, trafficking and distribution

The indoor cultivation of herbal cannabis in the EU is expected to further expand over the coming years with new growing techniques and increasingly sophisticated growing technologies being used by OCGs.

cannabis resin


Cannabis resin continues to be trafficked in large quantities from Morocco to the EU.

Libya is emerging as a new distribution hub for cannabis resin trafficked to the EU across the Mediterranean Sea.


Means of transportation

  1. EMCDDA & Europol 2016, EU Drug Markets Report 2016, p. 60, footnote 23
  1. Europol 2016, ‘Rose of the Winds’ – International operation against drug trafficking (01/12/20160, accessible at newsroom/news/%E2%80%98rose-of-winds%E2%80%99-%E2%80%93- international-operation-against-drug-trafficking, footnote 24
Cocaine img


Cocaine is primarily produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia and trafficked to the EU via other South American countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, the Caribbean Sea region and West Africa. Over the last two years, the production of cocaine in Colombia has intensified significantly. An increase in the production output in Colombia will likely impact on the EU in the form of intensified trafficking activity as well as greater availability of cocaine on drug markets in the Member States.

The trafficking modi operandi associated with the trade in cocaine have largely remained the same. Cocaine is typically trafficked as part of large shipments in containers or in smaller quantities by couriers.

Large shipments of cocaine are trafficked in containers hidden among legal goods or as part of the rip-on/rip-off modus operandi. Brazil is a key point of departure for cocaine couriers travelling directly to the EU. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and destinations in East Africa have emerged as hubs for cocaine couriers travelling to the EU. Cruise ships departing from the Caribbean Sea region are increasingly being used to traffic cocaine to the EU.

More OCGs are involved in cocaine trafficking than any other criminal activity in the EU.


Brazil is among the main countries of departure for couriers trafficking cocaine to the EU. This has been confirmed by the results of Operation Fuleco, an effort by Member States supported by Europol targeting cocaine couriers arriving to the EU’s major airports. During Operation Fuleco, nearly 200 cocaine couriers were arrested and almost 500 kilograms of cocaine seized in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland. Operation Fuleco took place in June and July 2014 and involved 12 Member States including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Heroin img


Afghanistan remains the leading producer of heroin trafficked to the EU. The production output of opium and heroin in Afghanistan is very high and is projected to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Production of heroin remains rare in the EU. However, depending on the development of the demand for heroin and potential disruptions to trafficking activities from Afghanistan further laboratories may emerge in the EU in the future. Heroin is also available on online marketplaces and is occasionally distributed across the EU in small quantities via post and parcel services.

The Balkan route remains the main entry route for the trafficking of heroin into the EU.

Synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances (NPS) img

Synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances (NPS)

The production of different types of synthetic drugs takes place in various Member States. The intended destination markets for synthetic drugs produced in the EU vary according to the substance and production location. A share of the largescale production of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), amphetamine and, to a lesser extent, methamphetamine in the Netherlands and Belgium is intended for trafficking to markets outside the EU, while the production of synthetic drugs in other parts of the EU predominantly supplies domestic and neighbouring EU markets.

The Netherlands and Belgium remain a globally significant production and distribution hub for MDMA and amphetamine. The OCGs involved in the production of synthetic drugs are highly flexible and have significant financial resources to constantly explore new market opportunities such as engaging in the production of other synthetic drugs including mephedrone.

Production sites for methamphetamine are expected to also appear in other Member States in greater numbers in the future, especially those with existing production capabilities for amphetamine.

Precursors and pre-precursors

OCGs producing synthetic drugs in the EU continue to be highly flexible and will remain so in the future. They are quick to adopt alternative precursor and pre-precursor substances in reaction to any shortages in established precursor substances. China remains a major supplier of pre-precursor substances and essential chemicals as well as hardware and glassware for synthetic drug laboratories in the EU.

Some OCGs have specialised in the procurement and production of preprecursor and precursor substances supplying OCGs producing and distributing synthetic drugs in the EU.


NPS continue to be produced in China and, to a lesser degree, India and trafficked to the EU in large quantities. NPS production in the EU is largely limited to packaging and re-selling of imported substances. However, some limited NPS production is thought to take place in the EU.

The great quantities of MDMA and amphetamine produced by Dutch OCGs are not solely intended for distribution in the EU. The MDMA and amphetamine output from production in the Netherlands and Belgium is trafficked to destination markets around the world. Australia remains among the most significant destination markets outside the EU for synthetic drugs produced in the Netherlands and Belgium. In some cases, large shipments of synthetic drugs are trafficked to destinations outside the EU in maritime shipping containers. There has been a significant increase in the amount of MDMA trafficked from the Netherlands to the United States over the last two years.

The production of synthetic drugs generates large quantities of highly toxic waste. OCGs dump this waste away from production laboratories to conceal their location. Dump sites often remain contaminated for a significant period of time and their recovery is costly. The dumping of toxic waste in public places also entails significant risks for the health and safety of citizens. In recent years, the number of dump sites discovered in the EU has been increasing. Dump sites are most frequently discovered in the Netherlands and Belgium.


In March 2016, Spanish law enforcement authorities in cooperation with other Member States and supported by Europol were able to dismantle a network importing and distributing large quantities of dangerous NPS in the EU. This network used various companies to import and sell these substances, especially synthetic cannabinoids from China, generating significant profits. Coordinated action in March 2016 involving house searches at four locations resulted in the seizure of 550 litres of acetone, 75,000 envelopes used for packaging different NPS brands, NPS worth more than EUR 1.5 million. This investigation highlights the profits involved in the distribution of NPS.


In November 2014, Australian law enforcement authorities seized a maritime shipping container holding approximately 2.8 tonnes of MDMA and methamphetamine. The load was estimated to have a street value of more than EUR 1.4 billion (USD 1.5 billion). At the time, the value and size of the seizure was unprecedented. The container arrived in Australia from Europe and was seized following an intelligence operation. The seizure led to the arrest of several individuals in Australia and Australian law enforcement authorities suspect the involvement of several OCGs in the production, trafficking and intended distribution of this shipment. This seizure highlights the scope of the trafficking of synthetic drugs from the EU to destination markets around the world.


In August 2015, four children and an accompanying adult suffered severe burns to their legs after coming in contact with chemical waste dumped by suspected synthetic drug producers in Belgium. Some of the waste produced as part of the manufacture of synthetic drugs is highly dangerous. Drug producers frequently dump this type of waste away from their laboratories in order to disguise their locations.

  1. ABC News 2014, Six charged after drug bust which seized 2.8 tonnes of MDMA and methamphetamine worth $1.5 billion (29/11/2014), accessible at $1.5b-drug-bust/5927904, footnote 25
Hormonal substances img

Hormonal substances

There is a growing market for illegal hormonal substances in the EU. These substances are both trafficked to and illegally produced in the EU.

Hormonal substances trafficked to the EU typically originate from China, India and Thailand. However, over the last few years production facilities for illicit hormonal substances have also been discovered in the EU.


Drug market generates
~24 EUR billion/year in profits


>35% of the criminal groups
active in the EU are involved in the drug market


previously undetected NPS reported in the EU for the first time over the past five years

of the OCGs involved in the trafficking of one drug also traffic and distribute other types of drugs.

of OCGs involved in the drug trade are simultaneously involved in other criminal activities such as the trade in counterfeit goods, THB and migrant smuggling. Drugs are also used as a means of payment among criminal groups.

Online trade

Criminals continuously seek out methods and technologies to make their business models more effective and increase profit margins. Online marketplaces on the Darknet are now a key platform used to advertise and sell all types of drugs. The anonymous nature of online transactions on these marketplaces and the use of cryptocurrencies reduce the risks of detection by law enforcement authorities for both vendors and buyers.


Technical innovation and the accessibility of sophisticated equipment have allowed OCGs to maximise the production output of individual sites. Large-scale cannabis cultivation sites are often maintained using professional growing equipment such as climate control systems, CO2 and ozone generators. Similarly, laboratories manufacturing synthetic drugs feature advanced chemical equipment and production lines capable of producing synthetic drugs on an industrial scale.

Drone technology is expected to advance allowing drones to travel greater distances and carry heavier loads as well as making them more affordable. OCGs involved in drug trafficking will likely invest in drone technology for trafficking purposes in order to avoid checks at border crossing points, ports and airports.




The market for synthetic drugs continues to be the most dynamic of the drug markets in the EU.



Online marketplaces on the Darknet are now a key platform used to advertise and sell all types of drugs.



Technical innovation and sophisticated equipment allow OCGs to maximise the production output.



The production of synthetic drugs generates large quantities of highly toxic and dangerous waste. Dump sites often remain contaminated for a significant period of time and their recovery is costly.



Libya is emerging as a new distribution hub for cannabis resin trafficked to the EU across the Mediterranean Sea.

  1. EMCDDA & Europol 2016, EU Drug Markets Report 2016, p. 23, footnote 22