Cannabis remains the largest illicit drug market in the EU, with European consumers spending an estimated 11.6 billion euros ($12.7 billion) on marijuana in 2017, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s (EMCDDA) annual report.
While there have been tentative steps towards cannabis and wider drug reform in the EU in recent years, the EMCDDA’s annual report shows that revenues generated by criminal organizations through the illicit drug trade still far outstrips that of legal markets in the 28-country bloc.
The EMCDDA further estimate that the EU narcotics market as a whole was worth at least 30 billion euros in 2017 – an increase of 6 billion from 2013.
Marijuana’s share in the EU’s illicit drug market remained steady at 39 percent in 2017, compared to 38 percent in 2013.
Agency officials said that these estimates are conservative, and that the actual total in the EU could be much higher.
Globally, the market for illicit drugs is thought to be worth between $426 and $652 billion.
The report notes that marijuana consumed in the EU is increasingly sourced from legal markets, such as California.
Primarily though, resin is most often imported from Morocco, while herbal cannabis is frequently sourced from Albania. The report states that the cost and potency of both resin and herbal cannabis are increasing.
After marijuana, the two largest illicit drug markets in the EU are cocaine and heroin. Cocaine sales in 2017 stood at around 9 billion euros, while heroin brought in at least 7 billion euros.
The EMCDDA believes their findings can be attributed to high levels of drug production globally. Cocaine production in South America and heroin production in Afghanistan are thought to have been operating at historically high levels for a number of years now.
The report states that the beneficiaries of the illicit drug trade are organized crime groups, who are often linked with large-scale violence and corruption.
Revenues from illicit drugs frequently go to militant organizations such as West Africa’s Boko Haram, Islamic State, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab, for whom the cash is a vital source of income.
Increasingly sophisticated methods for laundering money using cryptocurrencies has also contributed to the growth of the illicit drug trade.
Bitcoin is the cryptocurrency of choice for most criminal gangs, but the report notes that there has been a growth in the use of other currencies which claim to offer even greater anonymity, such as monero and zcash.
Hard-currency has its risks too. High-denomination notes have proven so popular for money launderers that the European Central Bank decided it would no longer issue them, though they remain legal tender. Such a measure will do little to deter highly-sophisticated criminal operations with huge financial incentives. But as Canada is discovering, there is also no guarantee that recreational marijuana legalization will automatically wipe-out the black market.