A decade of analyzing Europe’s wastewater has provided a snapshot of how drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine have spread to cities not previously considered hotspots for them.
The annual study, first coordinated by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in 2011, measures drug residue in wastewater during a one-week period every year to estimate community consumption.
The 2021 study included 75 cities in 23 countries in the European Union, Norway and Turkey. Some cities that had shown high drug use in the past – such as London and Reykjavik – have chosen not to participate in recent years.
Researchers tested for cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA, better known as the party drug ecstasy, measuring residues in milligrams per 1,000 people per day.
When compared to previous years, the latest data suggest that illegal drug use is both increasing and expanding across the region. This comes at a time when trafficking from Latin American countries to Europe is on the rise, though any correlation would need further investigation.
Mexican Meth and Cooks Move Across Atlantic
The Belgian city of Antwerp now ranks among Europe’s top ten in methamphetamine consumption. Meanwhile, the use of the drug in nearby Amsterdam has increased tenfold during the past decade, though use remains low relative to other cities.
Surging use of methamphetamine in these cities comes as Belgium and the Netherlands take central roles in the global drug trade. The Netherlands is now Europe's main trafficking hub for the synthetic drug, according to the World Drug Report 2021. Mexican methamphetamine cooks have also found their way to Belgium and the Netherlands. They are employed by European networks in large-scale production.
The Eastern European countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have historically been the epicenter of methamphetamine in Europe, and their cities continue to dominate the ranks in 2021. According to the 2021 World Drug Report, production is largely done in small-scale “kitchen laboratories” that serve the local market. However, Slovakia did make a record 1.5 ton methamphetamine seizure in 2020. The drugs came from Mexico.
Cocaine Floods Antwerp
Europe’s main cocaine trafficking hubs – Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain – account for the highest amount of cocaine use in the study. Antwerp has led cocaine consumption since 2019. Last year, wastewater residue was measured at 1,581 milligrams per 1,000 people per day. This was nearly double the amount of the second-highest city in the ranking. The increasing consumption comes as the city is being flooded with cocaine from Latin America. The city’s port has been hitting new highs in seizures since 2016, and took in a record haul of 90 tons in 2021.
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Cocaine use in most of the top 10 cities has also returned to levels seen in 2019, before the pandemic forced lockdowns. In fact, Antwerp, Brussels and the Dutch city of Eindhoven are seeing significant jumps in cocaine use compared to 2019.
Increase in Cocaine Use in Eastern Europe
While consumption of cocaine remains highest in cities in western and southern Europe, the data show an increase in use among residents in Eastern European cities. For example, in Vilnius, Lithuania, the quantity of cocaine residue measured almost quadrupled between 2017 and 2021. Latvia’s capital, Riga, saw levels nearly double from 57 milligrams per 1,000 people per day in 2019 to 109 in 2021.
Smuggled cocaine is now turning up in these countries. For example, 600 kilograms of cocaine were seized in Kaunas, Lithuania in 2015. More than two tons of cocaine were seized in Latvia in 2019. More recently, in December 2021, Latvia confiscated 168 kilograms of suspected cocaine that had been concealed in banana boxes from South America.
Swiss Are Riding High
Switzerland is once again a major country for cocaine consumption, with the cities of St. Gallen, Zurich, Basel and Geneva all in the top ten. In 2019, when five of the top ten cities included in the study were Swiss, addiction researchers said that the country’s permissive drug laws and wealth offered ideal conditions for cocaine use, Swissinfo reported. St. Gallen, a city of just over 75,000 people, registered the highest recorded cocaine use in the country.
Zagreb’s Cocaine Boom
Cocaine consumption in the Croatian city of Zagreb has increased elevenfold since 2011.
The jump coincides with the country transforming into a transshipment and drug gang hub. In April 2021, police in Croatia discovered half a ton of cocaine concealed in fruit cargo at the Adriatic Sea port of Ploce. Michael Dokovich, a Montenegrin Albanian who resided in Zagreb, is accused of transporting hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to Europe by private planes.
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It remains unclear whether the sharp increase in cocaine use in Zagreb is caused by the growing importance of Albanian and other Balkan networks in the South American drug trade to Europe.