How big is Europe’s cocaine problem – and what is the human cost?

<span>People in Europe accounted for 21% of all global users of cocaine in 2021.</span><span>Illustration: Carl Godfrey/The Guardian</span>
People in Europe accounted for 21% of all global users of cocaine in 2021.Illustration: Carl Godfrey/The Guardian

Over the past 10 years, Europe has developed a serious cocaine problem. The drug, originating in the jungles of South America, is being transported, sold and consumed across the European continent in record amounts.

The increasing demand from users – and the huge profits to be made in this booming marketplace – is reshaping the international drug-trafficking trade on both sides of the Atlantic and its widespread availability is leaving a trail of addiction, organised crime and human rights abuses in its wake.

default

What is cocaine and how is it made?

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant made from the leaves of the coca plant, native to Andean countries in South America, especially Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Usually manufactured in makeshift labs located deep in the rainforest, cocaine is often cut with a variety of substances before it is sold and then distributed as a white, crystalline powder that can be snorted or injected. It can also be combined with baking soda to create a rock-like product called “crack” cocaine, which is usually smoked.

How much cocaine is coming to Europe?

In the past decade, Europe’s cocaine trade has boomed. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), people in Europe accounted for 21% of all global users of cocaine in 2021.

The most recent UNODC report into the global cocaine trade found that the UK has the second highest rate of cocaine use in the world, with one in 40 British adults (2.7% of the population) using the drug, more than any other country in Europe. The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that 117 tonnes of cocaine a year is consumed in England, Scotland and Wales.

In the European Union, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) says that almost 2.5 million 15- to 34-year-olds – 2.5 % of this age group – used cocaine in the last year.

According to UN analysis, 2016-17 is seen as a pivotal moment in the expansion of the cocaine markets in western and central Europe, with data pointing to a much wider supply and consumption of the drug after 2016, borne out by increased levels of cocaine being found in wastewater across the continent. According to the 2024 European Drug report, cocaine residues in wastewater have increased in two thirds of European cities over the past two years.

Interactive

Over the past five years, record amounts of cocaine have been seized by the authorities across Europe. More than 323 tonnes of cocaine were seized by EU member states in 2022, the biggest volume of the drug ever confiscated by the authorities. and UK authorities seized more than 37 tonnes from 2022-23.

Interactive

How is cocaine reaching Europe?

Cocaine reaches Europe through a variety of routes, either by sea from ports in Ecuador and other countries, or travelling across the continent to Venezuela, where it then moves through the Caribbean or west Africa – which, data suggests, has picked up substantially as a transit zone – and then by sea or land to ports or across borders into Europe.

In the past decade, the criminal landscape in South America has fragmented into a myriad of trafficking networks after the demobilisation in 2016 of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the Farc) – which had previously controlled many of Colombia’s coca-growing regions.

UNODC’s 2023 report said increasing numbers of foreigners, including Europeans, were operating in South America to help streamline and professionalise the supply chain through to Europe.

The busy container shipping route between Ecuador and ports in Europe is being used to transit huge amounts of drugs into Europe. In August 2023, 9.5 tonnes of cocaine were found stashed inside a shipment of Ecuadorian bananas to Cádiz in Spain. It has been reported that only 20-30% of the 300,000 shipping containers that depart each month from the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil are searched by authorities.

Interactive

Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain report the highest numbers of cocaine seizures in Europe, mostly through their seaports. Seizures at Antwerp, Europe’s second-largest seaport after Rotterdam, rose to 116 tonnes in 2023 from 40 tonnes in 2017.

According to the EMCDDA, the illicit processing of cocaine products now also takes place in several EU member states, with 39 cocaine laboratories reported to have been dismantled in 2022, compared with 34 in 2021.

How much does cocaine cost?

Europol puts the total street-level value of the European cocaine market at between €7.6bn and €10.5bn (£6.4bn–£8.9bn).

A report by Europol and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) found that a gram of cocaine was 38% cheaper – once adjusted for purity of the drug – in 2020 compared with 2015.

In this article last year, our Europe correspondent Jon Henley wrote about Europe’s growing cocaine trade, reporting that the drug sells at up to twice as much as in the US: a kilo of cocaine bought for $1,000 in Colombia is worth more than €35,000 in Europe and can be sold for €50–€70 a gram.

What are the effects of Europe’s cocaine addiction?

The bloodshed, chaos and human rights abuses that have historically come hand in hand with the cocaine trade are playing out on both sides of the Atlantic.

The infiltration of international trafficking networks into Ecuador is causing community violence, gun crime and political instability. Earlier this year the government declared a state of “internal armed conflict” after attacks on cities, prisons and TV stations by narco gangs.

Interactive

In countries along the supply chain, an influx of arms, drug traffickers and cocaine money are swamping once-peaceful cities with violence and crime; corrupting political institutions and law enforcement in countries such as Venezuela; creating a generation of child addicts; and leading to a surge in violent crime in Caribbean transit points such as Trinidad and Tobago.

Europol and the EMCDDA recently released a report in which they said that drug trafficking was leading to unprecedented levels of child exploitation, gun violence and crime. Alexis Goosdeel, director of the EMCDDA, said Europe was now seeing levels of drug-related violence akin to that of Central America.

In 2023, the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, issued a dire warning that cocaine trafficking was putting the Netherlands at risk of becoming a “narco state”, swamped with criminal money, violence and exploitation.

Cocaine, often considered a recreational or party drug, is also highly addictive. With purity levels rising and widespread availability of the drug – boosted by sales on social media platforms and the use of encrypted messaging services – the health and social consequences for users, their families and communities is also proving devastating.

In 2023, cocaine was the second-most frequently reported drug used by people admitted for drug use in hospital emergency departments across Europe. Data also suggests the drug was involved in about a fifth of overdose deaths in 2021.