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In-Depth Coverage Of The Irish And European Markets

European Drug Report 2024

The European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) , soon to be renamed as EU Drugs Agency (EUDA) has released the 2024 European Drug Report, which contains some insight into Europe’s cannabis consumption and trends. A central message from the 2024 European Drug Report's analysis is that the impact of the use of illicit drugs is now seen almost everywhere in our society. Almost everything with psychoactive properties has the potential to be used as a drug.


Cannabis Use

To no one's surprise, cannabis remains by far the most commonly consumed drug in Europe, with 8% of European adults (22 million, aged 15-64) consuming cannabis in the last year, and 1.3% of adults (3.7 million) consuming cannabis daily. This group is most likely to experience health issues resulting from daily use and have a higher likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. It is important to note that, Ireland has not submitted updated figures for cannabis use since 2019, therefore the accuracy of use in Ireland is questionable.


Health Services & Treatment

Cannabis accounts for more than one-third of all drug treatment admissions in Europe. However, the wide variety of interventions for cannabis users complicates the interpretation of this data, in part because of the wide variety of interventions provided to cannabis consumers, which may include brief interventions or direct/indirect referrals from the criminal justice system. There remains a pressing need to better understand the issues faced by problematic cannabis consumers and which may be a more effective treatment path. The little information that does exist suggest that psychosocial treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are commonly offered and that e-health (online) interventions appear to be increasingly available.

Market development & Seizures

Cannabis seizures remain at historically high levels, this is no surprise as cannabis is the most commonly used drug across Europe and illustrates its widespread availability. Despite a significant drop in the quantity of cannabis resin seized in the EU, largely due to decreased seizures in Spain, Spain remains a key player in cannabis trafficking and production. The country accounted for a substantial share of both resin and herbal cannabis seizures in the EU.

The potency of seized cannabis resin continues to rise, with the average THC content now at 25%, compared to 10% for herbal cannabis. This increase in potency poses elevated risks to consumers, making responsible consumption a difficult task, while patients relying on the illicit market are resigned to a guessing game of dosage requirements to manage their health issues. Diversity in the cannabis market is increasing, with extracts, edibles and other derivatives becoming more common in seizures.


Synthetic Cannabinoids

The 2024 report contains an additional focus on the increasing availability and use of synthetic cannabinoids across Europe, with 9 additional cannabinoids, 4 of which are semi-synthetic cannabinoids, accounting for approximately one-third of the new substances first reported to the EU Early Warning System in 2023.  The market for new psychoactive substances (NPS) continues to evolve with new substances coming on the market frequently, which the laws and regulatory response of many countries fail to respond to. A growing concern is the risk of accidental exposure to synthetic cannabinoids among cannabis consumers. Adulterated cannabis, often mis-sold as regular cannabis, can contain highly potent synthetic cannabinoids, posing serious poisoning risks. The emergence of cannabis edibles infused with synthetic cannabinoids further complicates this issue, with cases of severe poisoning recorded in the EU.

Synthetic cannabinoids also sometimes appear in samples of other drugs. In May 2023, for example, an unusual and unexpected outbreak of non-fatal poisonings involving more than 20 people was reported in Paris, France, caused by heroin adulterated with synthetic cannabinoids. Around the same time, in April 2023, Lithuania reported the seizure of a similar adulterated heroin sample. New semi-synthetic cannabinoids, such as hexahydrocannabinol (HHC), have emerged on the European market, marketed as 'legal' alternatives to cannabis. These substances, often produced from cannabidiol extracted from low-THC cannabis, raise significant health concerns. While the effects of HHC in humans are not well-studied and remain poorly understood, anecdotal reports suggest similarities to cannabis. However, the potential for adverse effects, especially at higher doses, necessitates further research on synthetic cannabinoids.



Harm Reduction

Despite being Europe’s most commonly consumed illicit drug, cannabis is an area where harm reduction advice and interventions are often inadequate. European cannabis users frequently combine the drug with tobacco, highlighting a need for harm-reduction strategies to address smoking-related risks. As the variety and forms of cannabis products in Europe evolve, so too must harm reduction responses. Cannabis products, both resin and herbal, are now more potent, containing higher levels of THC than in the past. Furthermore, the range of available products has expanded to include edibles, e-liquids, and extracts. These developments present new challenges and opportunities for creating effective harm-reduction interventions to mitigate associated risks.

The transformation of the EMCDDA into the EUDA in July will mark a pivotal moment in European drug policy as it expands its mandates and places a pronounced emphasis on cannabis policy. One of the new EUDA’s primary initiatives is the development of a comprehensive "toolbox" to aid countries in formulating and evaluating their cannabis policies. This digital toolkit will provide resources for establishing baseline measurements and implementing evidence-based decisions. Furthermore, the EUDA will focus on reducing cannabis-related harms and enhancing understanding of available treatment approaches, including online interventions. With diverse policy options ranging from decriminalisation to state-controlled sales, each country can tailor its approach based on the latest data.

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