Illicit cannabis market in Europe is worth 11.4 billion euros according to a new report

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Last week, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) published its detailed report on the illicit cannabis market in the European Union.

The report, based on the latest data from the EMCDDA and its co-author Europol, reveals the extent of the illicit cannabis market, worth 11.4 billion euros, which would have served 22.6 million of Europeans over the past year.

Although the market size “remains stable”, the report raises a number of major concerns, including the sharp increase in THC potency, the rapid emergence of semi-synthetic cannabinoids such as HHC, and the environmental implications of illicit cultivation of cannabis in Europe.

“All of these developments take place amid an ongoing political debate in Europe and around the world, which impacts both licit and illicit markets, leading to challenges for law enforcement and criminal justice systems,” Andrew said. Cunningham, Head of Markets, Crime and Procurement at the EMCDDA, during the report launch webinar.

Spain, Morocco and the Western Balkans

With an estimated number of users of 22.6 million last year, cannabis is the most consumed illicit substance in Europe by far, being six times more important than cocaine, the second most consumed illicit substance. consumed.

Cannabis herb, or cannabis flower, represents more than three quarters (77%) of the total market value (at least 8.8 billion euros), while cannabis resin represents the remaining 23%, estimated at approximately 362 tonnes.

The quantity of herbal cannabis seized in the EU, Norway and Turkey reached historic records in 2021, with more than 288 tonnes. According to available data, the vast majority of cannabis seized in the EU comes from a small number of countries.

One of them is Spain, which in 2021 accounted for around 51% of the total herbal cannabis seized in the EU, or around 130 tonnes, while Italy (47 tonnes) and France (nearly 40 tons) together made up another third of the total.

These figures were eclipsed by a record 850 tonnes of cannabis resin seized in 2021 across the EU, Norway and Turkey, with Spain once again accounting for the majority of seizures, around 82%.

Credit: EMCDDA

“Most of the cannabis resin available on the European market comes from Morocco and, due to its geographical location, Spain is the main entry point into the EU,” said Robert Patrancus, scientific analyst at the EMCDDA.

Although Morocco remains the main source of resin in Europe, many EU countries have reported it as a source of herbal cannabis in recent years, marking a diversification of the product.

When it comes to herbal cannabis, the report suggests that the vast majority is grown in the EU, but the Western Balkans region remains an important location for the EU’s supply of herbal cannabis.

This situation is starting to change, however, with Albania’s efforts to tackle the problem apparently leading to a decrease in seizures since 2018.

“As part of these changes, to get closer to the main consumer market, some criminal networks in the Western Balkans have adapted a new business model, seeing them become involved in the cultivation and trafficking of cannabis inside the country. EU. »

Notably, since North Macedonia legalized medical cannabis production in 2016, “large quantities” of legally grown products are being diverted to the illicit market, a trend also seen in Albania.

While the Americas, West Africa and Southeast Asia are no longer considered major sources of illicit cannabis imports, there has recently been an “increase in the frequency of weed trafficking of cannabis from Canada and the United States.

Semi-synthetic cannabinoids

Another key issue raised in the report is the growing range of different cannabis consumption products that extends well beyond the “old hash + weed model”, with vapesof the ediblesoils and extracts now readily available to consumers across Europe.

Data suggests that the THC content of cannabis has increased by 57% in weed over the past decade, and almost 200% in resin, likely due to improved genetics and cultivation techniques. ‘extraction.

Cannabis has also become more affordable, with data taking into account costs “adjusted for purity or potency in the context of a given country’s standard of living” suggesting that “your money gets you 25% more THC than before.

Cannabis prices in Europe

Source: EMCDDA

A worrying aspect of this rapidly evolving market diversification is the rise of semi-synthetic cannabinoids, which the EMCDDA says are “predominantly made from CBD”.

Substances such as HHC, Delta-8 and Delta-10-THC are found naturally in the cannabis plant in small quantities, explains the EMCDDA, but producers now commonly convert non-psychoactive CBD into these psychoactive substances in Laboratories.

“CBD has become a pioneer,” said Laurent Laniel, senior scientific analyst at the EMCDDA, during the webinar.

“Why have people suddenly decided to make these new semi-synthetic extracts from CBD? Because there has been an overproduction of CBD in the United States and Canada. People invested money in CBD cannabis production and couldn’t sell it in the market, so they converted it into these new products so as not to lose all their investment, or even make a profit. »

The danger, he adds, is that these substances are new and we don’t yet have the data to determine whether they are safe to consume.

The environmental impact of illicit cannabis production

Although the EMCDDA clarified that its data on cannabis production sites in the EU was “incomplete”, it suggested that some 7,000 illicit cultivation sites had been dismantled in 2019 across 14 member states. In 2020 and 2021, these numbers increased to 10,000 and 9,000 respectively.

The number of cannabis plants seized, a “key indicator” used to determine the scale of the illicit market, reached 4.3 million in 2021, including around 3.2 million in Spain, representing an increase of almost two times compared to 2020.

In Turkey, the number of cannabis plants seized in 2021 was 18 times higher than in the entire EU, reaching 76 million.

The scale of this market is estimated to have a significant environmental impact, given the high water and energy requirements involved in growing large quantities of cannabis, while available data is also improving due to the growing number of regulated markets in the EU.

Growing one kilogram of cannabis herb indoors requires around 6,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, which equates to around 1,400 kg of carbon footprint.

To put this into perspective, a Dutch power grid provider suggested that electricity stolen for cannabis production in 2021 was around 1 billion kilowatt hours. This is equivalent to the annual household electricity consumption of a city the size of Rotterdam.

Water use is a second major environmental impact. If grown outdoors, a cannabis plant requires approximately 19 to 21 liters of water per day, and the average growth cycle is approximately 150 days.

The EMCDDA gave the concrete example of a crop dismantled in Spain which contained 400,000 plants. Taking these figures into account, one harvest cycle would require around 1.8 billion liters of water, equivalent to the daily consumption of a country the size of Latvia.

Despite this, the carbon footprint of indoor cannabis cultivation is estimated to be 60 to 100 times larger than that of outdoor cultivation. For example, to obtain the carbon footprint of a single cannabis joint (0.3 g) grown outdoors, you would have to travel 70 meters in a hybrid electric vehicle. For cannabis grown indoors, this figure increases to 4.6 km.

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