Rising cocaine purity, availability fueling addictions in Europe

The purity of cocaine in Europe has reached its highest level in a decade, a new report finds; it’s also increasing in availability, and more people there are seeking first-time addiction treatment for cocaine.

First-time admissions to treatment facilities for cocaine use increased by over 20% between 2014 and 2016 in EU member states, Turkey and Norway, according to a report published on Thursday by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

The increase in treatment admissions is the direct result of the large global supply of cocaine, which can lead to an increase in drug purity, according to Eoghan Quigley, drug policy analyst at center and project manager for the report. The annual report investigates the prevalence of different drugs and drug use across the the study countries.

The UK and Italy accounted for most of the increase in first-time treatment, but there was an uptick in first-time admissions across almost all the countries in the report, with 30,000 first-time clients of addiction centers saying cocaine was their primary drug in 2016.

The number of users hasn’t increased, according to Thomas Pietschmann, of the Drug Research Section of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, who wasn’t involved in the study. But consumption has increased, meaning that regular consumers are using more and higher quality cocaine, a trend that may be fueling the increase in first-time treatment admissions.

“Problems can be expected to increase if prevalence of use, and particularly high-risk patterns of use, increases,” he said.

However, as Dr. Karen Ersche, who runs the Drug Addiction Research group at Cambridge University, points out: “We don’t have any treatments for cocaine at the moment. There aren’t treatments specific to the needs of cocaine addiction.”

People addicted to cocaine are generally offered counseling services or cognitive behavioral therapy, according to Ersche. But because cocaine negatively affects the part of the brain used for learning, planning and decision-making — cognitive processes necessary for these kinds of addiction services — these treatments are ineffective, she said.

Of those that were admitted for treatment, 86% were male; 67% said they sniff cocaine and 25% said they smoked or inhaled it.

An estimated 3.5 million adults used cocaine last year in the EU. The retail cocaine market was worth around EUR 5.7 billion in 2013, according to the report.

Denmark, Ireland, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom showed the highest prevalence of cocaine use among young adults ages 15 to 35, with more than 2.5% of the young adult population in those countries reporting cocaine use in 2016. The United Kingdom — where 4% of young adults reported using cocaine in 2016 — demonstrated the highest rates of young adult cocaine use among the countries involved in the study.

“The increase in purity is the result of an increase in production from Latin America,” Pietschmann told CNN. “From 2013 to 2016, there has been a tripling of cocaine production in Colombia. If there’s more on the market, you increase the purity. If there’s less in the market, you reduce the purity.”

But it’s thought that changing supply routes have in part fueled the supplies arriving to Europe, according to the report. In 2016, Belgium overtook Spain, the perennial leader, as the country with the greatest number of cocaine seizures in Europe.

Whereas cocaine typically came through the Iberian peninsula, it is now coming more often through large container ports, such as Antwerp, said Pietschmann.

And it’s not just the supply of cocaine that’s increasing in the EU. The report pointed out another alarming trend, the increase of fentanyl and fentanyl derivatives, a drug that has been one of the main drivers of the US opioid crisis.

“Of the 38 new opioids detected since 2009, 28 of those have been fentanyl derivatives. There is concern around the emergence and the increase of fentanyl detected in the EU,” Quigley said.

In 2017, 10 of the fentanyl derivatives were reported for the first time, according to the study.