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Synthetic opioids a growing health threat: EU report

07 June 2017, 17:38 CET
Synthetic opioids a growing health threat: EU report

Drugs psychoactive substances - Photo UN

(LISBON) - Highly potent synthetic opioids pose a growing health threat, according to an EU report Tuesday which highlights rising overdose deaths and continued availability of new psychoactive substances.

In its annual overview, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) also explores: signs of rising cocaine availability; developments in cannabis policies; and substance use among school students.

The report highlights concern over the increasing number of drug overdose deaths in Europe, on the rise for the third consecutive year.

Over 93 million Europeans have tried an illicit drug in their lives, and there is increasing concern over the exposure young people are receiving to new and dangerous drugs.

"Already 25 highly potent synthetic opioids were detected in Europe between 2009 and 2016," says Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, "of which only small volumes are needed to produce many thousands of doses, thus posing a growing health threat."

A total of 8,441 overdose deaths, mainly related to heroin and other opioids, are estimated to have occurred in Europe in 2015 (28 EU, Turkey and Norway, a 6% increase on the estimated 7,950 deaths in the 30 countries in 2014. Increases were reported in almost all age groups. Rises in overdose deaths in 2015 are reported in Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and Turkey. Europe's 1.3 million problem opioid users are among the most vulnerable.

New psychoactive substances (NPS/'new drugs') remain a considerable public health challenge in Europe, says the report. Not covered by international drug controls, they include a broad range of synthetic substances, including cannabinoids, cathinones, opioids and benzodiazepines.

EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel says: '"We are seeing sales of these drugs becoming more clandestine, with transactions moving online or onto the illicit drug market, and we have witnessed the recent appearance of some highly potent substances, which have been linked to deaths and serious intoxications'.

With only small volumes needed to produce many thousands of street doses, new synthetic opioids are easy to conceal and transport, posing a challenge for drug control agencies and a potentially attractive commodity for organised crime. They are found in various forms — mainly powders, tablets and capsules — with some now available as liquids and sold as nasal sprays.

Europe's most commonly used illicit stimulant drugs are cocaine, MDMA (sometimes referred to as 'ecstasy' in tablet form) and amphetamines (amphetamine and methamphetamine). Cocaine use is higher in western and southern European countries — reflected in ports of entry and trafficking routes — while use of amphetamines is more prominent in northern and eastern Europe.

Around 17.5 million European adults (15–64 years) have tried cocaine at some time in their lives. Of these, around 2.3 million are young adults (15–34 years) who have used the drug in the last year. National surveys since 2014 show levels of cocaine use to be primarily stable.

This year's report also compares long-term patterns of substance use among European and American students (15–16 years), following the release of two major school surveys in 2016. The surveys show smoking and drinking among school students in Europe and the US to be declining, while trends in cannabis use appear to be more stable.

The report is accompanied by 30 Country Drug Reports presenting summaries of national drug phenomena in the EU28, Turkey and Norway.

European Drug Report 2017: Trends and Developments

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