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Overdose deaths are on the rise as new psychoactive substances become prevalent while potent synthetic opioids also pose a major threat to the health of people living across Europe . These are among the most pressing issues highlighted in the European Drug Report 2017 ‘Trends and Developments’ in Brussels by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

As drug problems facing Europe are increasingly influenced by developments occurring internationally, the analysis is placed in the global context, providing an overview of the latest trends across the 28 EU member states, Norway and Turkey. The Health Research Board (HRB) provides the Irish figures for the EMCDDA report. Dr Mairead O’Driscoll, Interim Chief Executive of the HRB said: “If we monitor what drugs people are taking, what treatment services are in demand and what is driving drug-related deaths, we can provide clear evidence to drive service planning at a local level.

“However cooperating across Europe also allows us to identify emerging trends and understand drug markets better which is essential for informed decision-making and developing appropriate responses”.

The issue of overdose has risen for the third consecutive year, with a total of 8,441 overdose deaths, mainly linked to heroin and other opioids, estimated to have occurred in Europe in 2015. This is an increase of six per cent on the estimated 7,950 deaths in the 30 countries in 2014. Europe’s 1.3 million problem opioid users are considered to be among the most vulnerable to overdose. The data revealed that the number of recorded methadone-related deaths exceeded heroin-related deaths in Denmark, Ireland, France and Croatia, underlining the necessity for good clinical practice to promote legitimate use and prevent the abuse of these substances.

NPS 

New psychoactive substances (NPS or ‘new drugs’) were a considerable public health challenge in Europe, as they are not covered by international drug controls. This includes a range of synthetic substances, such as cannabinoids, cathinones, opioids and benzodiazepines. Last year, 66 NPS were first detected via the EU Early Warning System (EWS), at a rate of over one per week, a slowing of the pace at which new substances are being introduced onto the market (98 substances were detected in 2015). However, the overall number of substances now available remains high and by the end of 2016, the EMCDDA was monitoring more than 620 NPS, substantially higher than the 350 NPS detected in 2013.

Potent synthetic opioids 

Similarly to the situation in North America, highly potent synthetic opioids, which mimic the effects of heroin and morphine, are a growing health threat in Europe. Although representing a small share of the market, reports of the emergence of these substances have increased; twenty-five new synthetic opioids were detected in Europe between 2009 and 2016 (18 of which were fentanils).

Fentanils are subject to particular scrutiny as these exceptionally potent substances amounted to over 60 per cent of the 600 seizures of new synthetic opioids reported in 2015. Just last year, eight new fentanils were reported through the EWS.

New synthetic opioids drugs are especially a challenge for drug control agencies, small volumes can produce many thousands of street doses and they are easy to conceal and transport. The drugs are also a potentially attractive commodity for organised crime as they are available in various forms; mainly powders, tablets, capsules, liquids, and they are even being sold as nasal sprays.

Cocaine

The report found that the most commonly used illicit stimulant drugs were cocaine, MDMA and amphetamines. Cocaine use proved to be higher in western and southern European countries, which is reflected in ports of entry and trafficking routes, while amphetamine use is more prominent in northern and eastern Europe.

Cannabis

The number of reported first-time treatment entrants for cannabis problems rose, from 43,000 (2006) to 76,000 (2015). Cannabis continues to be associated with health problems and is now responsible for the greatest share (45 per cent) of new entrants to drug treatment in Europe (28 EU, Turkey and Norway). Almost 88 million European adults (aged between 15–64 years) admitted that they had tried cannabis in their lifetime. Of these, an estimated 17.1 million were young Europeans (aged between 15–34 years) who had used cannabis within the last year. Roughly one per cent of European adults are daily or almost daily cannabis users.