Report: Drug use rises in Europe

The use of illicit substances such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis are on the rise in the European Union, especially among schoolchildren, the EU’s drugs agency announced in a report released Tuesday. In its annual report on the state of the drugs problem in the 15-nation bloc, the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) also notes an increased demand for treatment, mostly opiate dependency; a spread of drug use from major urban centers to all regions; a change in the patterns of drug use, with imported heroin increasingly taking the place of locally produced opiates; and an increase of drug-related arrests and narcotics confiscations. Based on the findings of the report, casual cannabis use increased over the 1990s in most countries where information is available – roughly 20 to 25 percent. In Greece, Finland and Sweden, where the prevalence of cannabis was low in the 1990s, increases seem to have been proportionally greater than in countries where initial prevalence was higher, such as in Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom. Specifically, recent use of cannabis during the last 12-month period is reported by 1 to 9 percent of European adults. Drugs in schools Based on the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs (ESPAD) school surveys, perceived access to drugs by 15- to 16-year-old students appeared to increase between 1995 and 1999 in all participating EU countries including Greece, except in Ireland and the United Kingdom, where use has been decreasing. The surveys also show that cannabis continues to be the most widely used illegal substance among students in the EU. Casual cannabis use among 15- to 16-year-old students ranges from 8 percent in Sweden and Portugal to 35 percent in France and the UK. In two members states, Greece and Sweden, casual use of inhalants, or volatile substances, is higher than or equal to that of cannabis. In the meantime, casual use of amphetamines is reported by 1 to 8 percent of 15- to 16-year-old students, ecstasy use by 1 to 5 percent, and figures for casual use of cocaine are between 1 and 4 percent, with Spain and the Netherlands at the higher end of cocaine use. A different pattern occurs in illicit casual use of tranquilizers and sedatives – without a doctor’s prescription – where the United Kingdom and Norway, at 4 percent, are at the lowest end of illicit casual use, and France at the highest with 12 percent. In terms of gender, illicit casual use of tranquilizers and sedatives is higher among girls than boys in France, Portugal, Italy, Finland and Sweden. In contrast, the prevalence of casual use for illegal drugs is higher among boys than girls in all member states. The agency notes, though, that comparable data from the United States show that figures for casual use of a number of illegal drugs are higher than in any of the EU member states: cannabis (41 percent), amphetamine (16 percent), ecstasy (6 percent) and cocaine (8 percent). Treatment In Greece, data from indirect indicators, such as treatment, deaths, and low-threshold services suggest an increase in «problem drug use.» The agency’s report defines «problem drug use» as «injecting drug use or long-duration/regular use of opiates, cocaine and/or amphetamines.» This definition excludes ecstasy and cannabis users and those who never, or irregularly, use opiates, cocaine or amphetamines. According to the report, in most countries opiates, especially heroin, are the main drug for new clients entering treatment. The variation between countries is quite high – ranging from 22.4 percent in Finland to 84.2 percent in Greece – but the figures tend to hover between 50 and 70 percent. Apart from heroin, other main substances for which treatment is sought are cannabis (over 15 percent in Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Ireland) and cocaine (especially the Netherlands at 15.4 percent and Spain at 17 percent). The proportion of drug addicts in treatment for heroin use who inject intravenously varies markedly, from 12.5 percent in the Netherlands to 72.7 percent in Greece. Meanwhile, a comparison between all and new clients demanding treatment for heroin seems to confirm a decrease in injecting heroin (an average of about 10 percent fewer do so). According to the agency, common trends are identified in the number of new clients seeking treatment; those demanding treatment for heroin are decreasing while the numbers for cannabis and especially cocaine use are growing. The biggest rise in cocaine users is reported by Spain (from 21.6 percent in 1998 to 30.9 percent in 1999) and the Netherlands (from 14.7 percent in 1994 to 23.2 percent in 1999). The findings also show that drug addicts entering treatment programs tend to be males in their 20s or 30s. The mean age is 29 years for all clients and 27 for new ones. The gender distribution varies, although there are similarities among southern countries, where men are the largest majority (86/14 in Italy, 85/15 in Spain, 84/16 in Portugal and Greece), and also among northern countries, with a higher presence of women in treatment, including 70/30 in Ireland and 72/28 in Sweden. Drug-related deaths in the EU appear to have stabilized in recent years, based on the findings, with several countries showing decreases. Greece, Ireland and Portugal, however, all showed substantial upward trends, which are probably related to a later expansion of heroin use in these countries. Arrests Arrests for violations of narcotics laws have been steadily increasing since 1985 in the EU as a whole, the agency declares, in a drive to halt the shipment of drugs into the Union. Increases by more than sevenfold were reported in Finland, Greece and Portugal, while in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden increases were much lower – double or less. In 1999 cannabis remained the most common drug found in drug-related arrests, accounting for between 45 percent of the total in Italy to 85 percent in France. In Greece, cannabis in 1998 accounted for some 75 percent of all drug-related arrests. In Sweden, amphetamines are slightly more frequent than cannabis; in Portugal and Luxembourg, heroin is predominant; while in the Netherlands most drug offenses are related to «hard drugs,» rather than cannabis and derivatives. In 1999, according to the report, over seven tons of heroin were seized in the EU, one third of it in the United Kingdom. Heroin seized in the EU comes mainly from the Golden Crescent (southwest Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan), followed by the Golden Triangle (southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos, Thailand), via Turkey, the Balkan Route and the Netherlands. However, increased trafficking via northeastern European countries was reported, especially via Russia. But drugs and drug users are also widespread in the correctional systems of EU countries. The agency notes that up to 90 percent of prisoners report casual use of an illicit drug. Problem drug users and/or intravenous drug users are less frequent, but may still represent up to 50 percent of the prison population in some areas.