European drug scene in a ‘state of flux’

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New threats are continuing to challenge Europe’s established models of drug policy and practice, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), with the drug problem in a ‘state of flux’.

Positive developments regarding more traditional drugs – such as fewer new heroin users, less injecting and declining use of cocaine and cannabis in some parts of the continent – continue to be offset by concerns around new psychoactive substances, says the agency’s annual report.

Seventy-three new psychoactive substances were notified for the first time in 2012 compared to 24 in 2009, 41 in 2010 and 49 in 2011. There is no sign of ‘a slowing down in the number of new drugs being reported in Europe’, the report states, with 30 new synthetic cannabinoids discovered in 2012 alone. ‘Driven by globalisation, technological advancement and the internet, an open market for new drugs has now developed which presents significant challenges to public health, law enforcement and policymaking,’ says the agency, with organised crime drawn to the ‘rapidly developing and expanding market’ by high profits and comparatively low risks.

The number of people entering treatment for the first time for heroin problems, meanwhile, has continued to fall, with reductions ‘most apparent’ in western European countries and smaller proportions of injectors. Recent HIV outbreaks in Greece and Romania, however, have ‘interrupted this positive trend’ and underline the need for adequate harm reduction and treatment services, says the document.

A key theme of the report is that drug treatment remains ‘a cost-effective policy option, even at a time of economic austerity’, and it stresses the need to focus on continuity of care – including for prisoners – social reintegration, and investment in new interventions around hepatitis C and overdose prevention.

‘Signs that current policies have found traction in some important areas must be viewed in the light of a drugs problem that never stands still’, said EMCDDA Director Wolfgang Götz. ‘We will need to continue to adjust our current practices if they are to remain relevant to emerging trends and patterns of use in both new drugs and old.’

DrugScope supported the report’s conclusion that the EU drug scene was in flux, particularly regarding the ‘bewildering’ array of new synthetic drugs. ‘Names such as Black Mamba, Annihilation and Clockwork Orange should give some indication of the risks being taken and the challenges that those providing advice and support for young people are having to face,’ said chief executive Martin Barnes.

‘While the heroin using population is clearly ageing, and overall drug use has fallen, we have to stay focused on the problem,’ he added. ‘There are still nearly 300,000 people needing help with serious drug problems at a time when there is no longer any ring-fencing for drug treatment funding and competing pressure on local budgets is intense.’

European drug report 2013: trends and developments at www.emcdda.europa.eu