Europol Reports on EU Drugs Market & Suggests a More Robust Response Needed

Craig MacKenzie
Craig MacKenzie

Published: March 8th, 2024

7 min read

The High-Profile & Private Crime Division, led by Partner Craig MacKenzie, secured acquittals for our client following a seven-week trial at Manchester Crown Court. The team instructed Ian McMeeking of Lincoln House Chambers in the case, which involved the supply of drugs across Greater Manchester.

Our client was accused of being a leading figure in the Organised Crime Group responsible for supplying vast amounts of drugs across the city. It was a case that many suggested that, on paper, it seemed hopeless to defend, and even though the majority involved pleaded guilty on the first day of trial, the team fought successfully to clear our client's name.

This represents the 8th acquittal in a row for the High-Profile & Private Crime Division, which has gone from strength to strength since being set up to specialise in offering a 'cutting edge, best in class service' to professionals, prominent individuals, and businesses subject to investigation or proceedings by the police and other regulatory and enforcement agencies.

As this case concludes, Europol reports on the EU drugs market & suggests a more robust response is needed.

The EU retail drug market is estimated to be worth more than EUR 30 billion annually, making it a significant source of income for organised crime. Europe occupies a central position in drug supply and trafficking, as evidenced by the large-scale production of cannabis and synthetic drugs within the EU and the vast volumes of cocaine arriving from Latin America.

Commenting on organised crime groups, Europol remarked that:

"Criminal networks operating in the EU drug market are highly adaptable, innovative and resilient to global crises, instability and significant political and economic changes. Recent examples of such shocks include the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's war on Ukraine and the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan. In response, criminal networks have adapted, changing trafficking routes and diversifying their methods."

Criminal networks leverage digital advances and technological opportunities to conceal illicit communication, improve drug distribution models and reduce risk. An example of this is the recent rise in the use of social media and instant messaging applications for the retail sale of drugs, making a wide range of substances more accessible.

Europol's Executive Director stated:

"Criminal networks infect the very core of our communities, weaving through the fabric of our democracy and economy. They erode trust, fuel violence, and create cycles of addiction and poverty. A vigilant, unified response is needed to safeguard our citizens and society from the omnipresent influence of this invisible enemy. Using Europol, EU Member States can pool resources, exchange criminal intelligence, and coordinate actions to tackle the illegal distribution of drugs."

"The market for illicit drugs, controlled by criminal networks, represents a serious security threat to the European Union. It endangers public health and safety while fostering extreme violence and corruption, undermining the very fabric of society, democracy and the rule of law."

Actions to counter drug crime

International law enforcement has had some recent success in disrupting major criminal drug markets, not least via the interception of Encrochat communications.

To strengthen the responses of law enforcement, Europol is urging all of its international partners to take further measures, including the following:

  • Strengthen the systematic monitoring and analysis of the EU drug market, including precursors, illicit drugs and new psychoactive substances, using advanced methods and technologies, such as artificial intelligence and satellite imagery analysis.
  • Enhance detection and monitoring of particularly harmful substances with significant negative implications for public health, such as synthetic opioids and new psychoactive substances.
  • Further strengthen threat assessments across the drugs supply chain, focusing on how developments outside Europe may impact the EU drug market.
  • Improve monitoring and analysis of drug market-related violence by using comparable indicators and tools to develop a deeper understanding of its causes. In conjunction, prioritise mapping criminal networks that pose the highest threat.
  • Enhance monitoring and analysis of the use of online platforms to trade and distribute drugs. Particular attention should be paid to developments on the surface web and social media platforms, especially concerning their use by young people.
  • Develop new frameworks to analyse the potential impact of legislative changes on illicit drug markets. This will require an improved understanding of the size of the drug market and its possible implications on governance.
  • Strengthen operational responses against criminal networks, particularly against high-risk criminal networks and high-value targets. The latter include the brokers and facilitators that enable illicit activities, such as money-laundering networks.
  • Further prioritise operational activities that dismantle entire criminal networks and their associates. Use relevant European tools for operational coordination and international cooperation, mainly operational task forces and joint investigation teams.
  • Enhance responses to the trafficking and diversion of precursors and essential chemicals used in drug production.
  • Enhanced strategies are required to prevent criminal networks from exploiting weaknesses in current control measures and to reduce the supply of precursors.
  • Strengthen administrative barriers to prevent criminals from exploiting legal loopholes and the licit economy. This should include enhanced and targeted measures to tackle corruption to prevent criminals from undermining the rule of law.
  • Enhance interdiction capacity at seaports, post and parcel hubs in Europe. This should include the implementation of advanced monitoring technologies and tools.
  • Strengthen and further prioritise crime prevention policies focused on young people at risk of exploitation and recruitment by criminal networks.
  • Prevention and awareness programmes targeted at online risk behaviours among young people should also be enhanced.
  • Strengthen engagement and cooperation with international organisations and third countries to tackle criminal networks across the entire supply chain for illicit drugs. Particular attention should be paid to improving cooperation at key hubs for drug flows destined for the European Union.
  • Promote the exchange of data and intelligence on drug trafficking networks, routes and trends to enhance situational awareness and coordinated responses between the European Union and third countries.
  • Further support the implementation of relevant European regulations and international agreements to harmonise legal frameworks to disrupt the drug trade. Particular attention should be paid to improving frameworks for extraditing and prosecuting criminals in external countries.
  • Strengthen public-private partnerships to prevent the exploitation of licit business structures and international trade routes. This includes prioritising improved resilience against criminal activity in key logistics hubs.

All of these measures increase the risk of detection and successful prosecution.

How can we help?

Investigations and prosecutions brought by the Police, NCA, HM Revenue and Customs and SOCA often involve many individuals and organisations and, as a result, are very lengthy and complex. It is vital to get legal advice immediately if you face charges of this nature, as you could face life imprisonment for the most serious offences.

Contact our specialist criminal defence team at any time on 01772 220 022. We have a team in place 24 hours a day and 365 days a year to be there when you need us.

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