Europeans are spending more than 30 billion euros (£25 billion) each year on drugs with the UK among the five countries with the greatest demand for heroin, research has suggested.
The estimated amount users are spending at street value is a “major source” of income for organised crime groups, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol.
The findings published on Tuesday said 39% of the money was being spent on cannabis, 31% on cocaine, 25% on heroin and 5% on amphetamines and MDMA.
The illicit drug market remains a threat to people’s health and security with availability still “very high” in Europe and consumers having access to a “wide variety” of high-purity and highly potent products at “steady or falling prices”, the report said.
Drug-related violence and corruption is “increasingly evident” in the EU as illegal firearms, encrypted smartphones and fraudulent documents are being increasingly used by drug dealers, according to the research.
The report also raised concerns about a “clear increase” in trafficking linked to drugs.
Based on the number of users, the UK is thought to be one of the five main heroin markets alongside France, Italy, Germany and Spain.
Large quantities of the drug are likely to be smuggled into the countries to meet demand which was an estimated 115 tonnes at street-level purity in 2017, the report said.
It added: “Pakistani and British organised crime groups appear to jointly orchestrate large-scale importation of heroin to the United Kingdom.”
EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel said: “This report is a clear wake-up call for policymakers to address the rapidly growing drug market.
“A mounting concern is the rise in drug-related violence and corruption within the EU.
“Acting on the far-reaching consequences of the drug market for health and for security must now be an urgent priority.”
Gangs are continuing to exploit shipping routes, the report warned.
More than 750 million containers are transported by sea every year, accounting for 90% of the global cargo trade, but fewer than 2% are ever checked.
Some 90% of the EU’s external trade and 40% of internal trade is transported by sea, the report said, adding: “Large container ports in Europe and other continents are being increasingly exploited by drug traffickers for bulk transportation.
“For example, in 2017, the port of Antwerp, the busiest in Europe after Rotterdam, saw incoming traffic of up to 3.5 million maritime shipping containers, of which only around 1% were inspected.
“Except for a brief fall in 2009-10, at a time of financial crisis in large parts of the world, the number of containers moving through these two ports has generally been increasing for the last decade.”
Passenger and cargo flights as well as private aircraft and drones are also being used.
Post and parcel services to transport drugs were “expanding rapidly” amid a “rising trend of online shopping in Europe”, while around 10 sites peddling drugs on the dark web were still in operation, the findings said.
Social media, messaging services and mobile apps also “provide avenues for online drug sales”.
Typically Turkish organised crime groups have overall control on wholesale importing of heroin but British gangs are also involved.
Cocaine – historically trafficked by Colombians and Italians – is increasingly being moved around by British and Irish gangs among others, the report said.
So-called county lines gangs are described as a growing phenomenon emerging in other parts of Europe – particularly Belgium, Estonia, Greece, Ireland and Sweden – just as it has in the UK where groups based in major cities run a chain of supply mostly of heroin and crack cocaine to smaller towns.
Catherine De Bolle, Europol’s executive director, said: “Europol sees a clear increase in trafficking activity through our operational work and the intelligence contributions we receive from EU member states.
“Law enforcement needs to tackle this development and that is why we are investing heavily in supporting drug-related investigations in Europe.”
The report also raises concerns on the environmental effects of cocaine production, arguing the farming and chemical extraction of the substance prompts deforestation, while growing just one crop harms biodiversity, and erosion is another risk.