A major new report identifies changing patterns of drug use across Europe. Young British adults’ continent-high rate of cocaine use is one finding. A particularly concerning trend is the rapid increase in overdose deaths among Europeans aged 50-plus.
The report, released September 22, was commissioned by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). It covers all of the European Union member states, plus the recently departed UK, Turkey and Norway. It seeks to describe drug-use trends up to December 2019, though some of the datasets used are only as recent as December 2018.
The report also touches on the more recent COVID-19 pandemic, describing an “extremely resilient” ilicit drug supply, thanks to continuing maritime transportation, ongoing snythetic drug production and cannabis growing, and a widespread swtich to online sales.
In 2018, 5.3 percent of British adults aged 18-34 used cocaine, the report finds. The countries with the next highest levesl of use in this age group were the Netherlands and Denmark, which each had rates of 3.9 percent.
Britain also leads in its number of people seeking treatment for problematic crack cocaine use—representing half of the 15,000 total cases reported to the EMCDDA. Other possible indicators of rising cocaine use throughout Europe include increased purity of the drug and an all-time high for law enforcement seizures, the report notes.
The countries included in the report suffered about 8,300 overdose deaths in 2018, primarily involving opioids. This is clearly far lower than equivalent figures in North America, with the established nature of European harm reduction and differing illicit opioid markets among the likely explanations.
The European overdose figure is described as “stable” compared to the previous year. “The European analysis, however, is provisional and probably understates the actual number of deaths that occurred in 2018,” the report cautions, partly because countries collect and report data so differently. The UK and Germany together accounted for half of all overdose deaths recorded in the countries analyzed.
Overdoses in Europe disproportionately impact men, who account for over three quarters (76 percent) of deaths. But the age profile of those impacted by overdose deaths is changing. The mean age of overdose victim rose to over 41 years of age in 2018. Among adults over 50, overdoses increased by 75 percent between 2012 and 2018.
The one age category that didn’t experience an overdose increase in this period was the 20-29 age group. “This reflects the ageing nature of a large part of Europe’s opioid-using population, mainly in western Europe, who are at greatest risk of drug overdose death,” the authors write.
The report found that opioids remain easily the most common illicit drug category (still dwarfed by tobacco and alcohol) involved in deaths—including nine out of 10 overdose deaths throughout countries in northern and eastern Europe. Many countries reported a rise in heroin-related deaths, with the largest spike in Portugal, where they increased 93 percent over those six years.
One key area where Europe differs from North America is that where data were available on fentanyl and synthetic opioids, countries generally reported decreases in associated fatal overdoses. Such rates stayed stable in the UK and increased only in Finland. Fentanyl and similar substances are nowhere near as prevelant in the European opioid market as they are in North America.
Meanwhile, cocaine-related deaths, while much rarer than those involving opioids, increased in Germany, Italy, Austria and Portugal. They remain particularly high in Spain, where more than half (53 percent) of fatal overdoses are linked to cocaine.