Intended for healthcare professionals


Number, type, and availability of new drugs are on the increase in Europe

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 29 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3489
  1. Rory Watson
  1. 1Lisbon

Europe’s drugs scene is evolving as the use of established illicit substances such as heroin declines, but the number, type, and availability of new drugs continues to increase. The new challenges facing policy makers are set out in the latest annual report from the Lisbon based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.1

The report confirms fewer new users of heroin, less injecting, and declining use of cannabis and cocaine in some European countries. However, cannabis use remains high by historical standards: some 77 million European adults have tried the drug during their lifetime, of whom around 20 million have taken it during the past year.

Presenting the report’s findings, Wolfgang Götz, the drug centre’s director, said: “Signs that current policies have found traction in some important areas must be viewed in the light of a drugs problem that never stands still. We will need to continue to adjust our current practices if they are to remain relevant to emerging trends and patterns of use in both new drugs and old.”

Positive changes identified by the report include record levels of treatment for drug users. It estimates that at least 1.2 million Europeans received treatment during 2011, of whom opioid users were the largest group. Substitution treatment remains the first choice for tackling opioid dependence. It is now given to some 730 000 addicts—a substantial increase from the 650 000 who benefited in 2008.

Yet the agency also stresses that, given the large number of drug users in contact with treatment services, there is increased need for continuity of care, social reintegration, and consensus on measures that can provide realistic long term outcomes for recovery. It strongly warns against cuts in health budgets as governments struggle with negative economic growth, increasing unemployment rates and public deficits.

João Goulão, chair of the Lisbon agency’s management board, said: “We are already receiving reports from a number of European countries of cuts in drug related services. We need to reinforce the message that drug treatment remains the most cost effective policy option, even in difficult economic times.”

A parallel report2 produced by the agency and the European law enforcement agency, Europol, illustrates the fundamental shift taking place in the drug market as new psychoactive substances appear on the scene. These drugs are increasingly produced in China and India and imported into Europe in bulk where they are processed, packaged, and sold as legal highs.

In 2012, 73 new drugs were officially identified via the European Union’s early warning system—a considerable increase on the 49 new drugs reported in 2011 and the 41 in 2010. In total, over 280 new psychoactive substances are now being monitored by the warning system.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3489


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