Cocaine in Europe: Analyzing the Impact of a Growing Epidemic

Over the past decade, Europe has faced an alarming surge in cocaine trafficking and consumption, reshaping international drug trade and exacerbating issues of addiction, organized crime, and human rights violations across the continent

by Sededin Dedovic
Cocaine in Europe: Analyzing the Impact of a Growing Epidemic
© VICE / Youtube channel

Over the past 10 years, the cocaine problem in Europe has become very serious. The drug, originating from the jungles of South America, is transported, sold, and consumed across the European continent in record quantities, according to The Guardian.

The increasing demand and huge profits that can be made in this booming market are reshaping international drug trade on both sides of the Atlantic, and its wide availability is affecting addiction, organized crime, and human rights violations.

What is cocaine and how is it made?

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant made from the leaves of the coca plant, native to the Andean countries of South America, particularly Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Typically produced in makeshift laboratories located deep in the jungle, cocaine is often mixed with various substances before being sold and then distributed as a white, crystalline powder that can be snorted or injected.

It can also be combined with baking soda to make a rock-like product called "crack" cocaine, which is usually smoked.

How much cocaine reaches Europe?

In the past decade, European cocaine trade has boomed. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Europeans accounted for 21 percent of all global cocaine users in 2021.

The latest UNODC report on global cocaine trade revealed that the UK has the second-highest rate of cocaine use in the world, with one in 40 adults (2.7 percent of the population) using the drug, more than any other country in Europe.

The UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that 117 tons of cocaine are consumed annually in England, Scotland, and Wales. In the European Union, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) states that nearly 2.5 million people aged 15 to 34 years – 2.5 percent of this age group – used cocaine last year.

According to UN analysis, 2016-2017 is considered a key moment in the expansion of the cocaine market in Western and Central Europe, with data indicating much greater supply and consumption of the drug after 2016, confirmed by increased levels of cocaine found in wastewater across the continent.

According to the 2024 European Drug Report, cocaine residues in wastewater have risen in two-thirds of European cities over the past two years. Over the past five years, authorities across Europe have seized record amounts of cocaine.

More than 323 tons of cocaine were seized by EU member states in 2022, the largest amount of the drug ever seized by authorities. UK authorities seized more than 37 tons from 2022-23.

Packages containing confiscated cocaine are seen at a press conference in Hamburg, Germany© Joern Pollex / Getty Images

How does cocaine reach Europe?

Cocaine arrives in Europe via various routes, either by sea from ports in Ecuador and other countries or traveling across the continent to Venezuela, from where it then moves via the Caribbean or West Africa – which has grown significantly as a transit zone – and then by sea or land to ports or across borders into Europe.

In the past decade, the criminal landscape in South America has fragmented into numerous trafficking networks following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, which previously controlled many Colombian coca-growing regions.

The 2023 UNODC report states that an increasing number of foreigners, including Europeans, are operating in South America to help streamline and professionalize the supply chain to Europe. The busy container transport route between Ecuador and European ports is used for the transit of huge amounts of drugs to Europe.

In August 2023, 9.5 tons of cocaine were found hidden in a shipment of Ecuadorian bananas bound for Cadiz, Spain. It is reported that authorities search only 20-30 percent of the 300,000 shipping containers departing from the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil each month.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain report the highest number of cocaine seizures in Europe, mostly through their sea ports. Seizures in Antwerp, the second-largest sea port in Europe after Rotterdam, rose to 116 tons in 2023 from 40 tons in 2017.

According to EMCDDA, illegal processing of cocaine products now also occurs in several EU member states, with 39 cocaine laboratories dismantled in 2022, compared to 34 in 2021.

How much does cocaine cost?

Europol estimates the total value of the European cocaine market to be between 7.6 billion euros and 10.5 billion euros ($8.6 billion to $11.9 billion).

A report by Europol and the EMCDDA revealed that a gram of cocaine was 38 percent cheaper – when adjusted for purity – in 2020 compared to 2015. In an article for The Guardian last year, Europe correspondent Jon Henley wrote about the growing cocaine trade in Europe, reporting that the drug sells for up to twice as much as in the US: a kilogram of cocaine bought for $1,000 in Colombia is worth more than 35,000 euros ($39,700) in Europe and can be sold for 50-70 euros ($57-$80) per gram.

What are the effects of Europe's cocaine addiction?

Bloodshed, chaos, and human rights violations have historically gone hand in hand with the cocaine trade on both sides of the Atlantic. The infiltration of international trafficking networks in Ecuador is causing community violence, crime, and political instability.

Earlier this year, the government declared a state of "internal armed conflict" after drug gang attacks on cities, prisons, and TV stations. In countries along the supply chain, the influx of weapons, drug dealers, and cocaine money is flooding once peaceful towns with violence and crime; corrupting political institutions and law enforcement agencies in countries like Venezuela; creating a generation of addicted children leading to increased violent crime in transit points in the Caribbean like Trinidad and Tobago.

Europol and the EMCDDA recently released a report stating that drug trafficking is leading to unprecedented levels of child exploitation, violence, and gun crime. Alexis Goosdeel, director of the EMCDDA, said Europe is now seeing drug-related violence similar to that in Central America.

Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema warned in 2023 that cocaine trade is putting the Netherlands at risk of becoming a "narco-state," overwhelmed by criminal money, violence, and exploitation. Cocaine, often considered a recreational or party drug, is also highly addictive.

In 2023, cocaine was the second most frequently reported drug used by people admitted for drug use in emergency hospital departments across Europe. Data also suggests that overdoses of this drug caused one-fifth of deaths in 2021.