June 17, 2021

THC Content of Illicit Market Cannabis in Europe at an All-Time High

3min read

The EMCDDA’s European Drug Report 2021 highlights a significant increase in THC content of cannabis in Europe, as well as prevalent cannabis use amongst Europeans and an increase in home cultivation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jane Hall, Reporter, Prohibition Partners
17th June 2021


Cannabis resin sold in Europe is more potent than ever before, EU officials have warned.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) says the THC content of cannabis resin is now on average between 20% and 28% – almost twice that of cannabis flower. THC content of cannabis flower is still as high as it has ever been, however.

Cannabis products available in Europe now include high-THC content commodities as well as new forms adulterated with synthetic cannabinoids sold on the illicit market. These exist alongside a range of goods containing cannabis extracts – but low levels of TCH – sold commercially.

The data is contained in the EMCDDA’s European Drug Report 2021, which raises concerns about the increase in reports of cannabis contaminated with man-made cannabinoids.

“It is not known what could be driving this development but it could possibly reflect both shortages of cannabis linked to the pandemic or, possibly in some countries, criminal groups exploiting the availability of low-THC cannabis products, which may be difficult to distinguish from cannabis sold on the drug market,” the report says.

New Illicit Distribution Channels

The EMCDDA has been monitoring the drug situation in Europe for more than 25 years. Its annual trends and development report draws on information provided by EU member states, as well as Turkey and Norway, and presents a top-level overview of the drugs phenomenon in Europe, covering everything from supply to use and public health issues as well as narcotic policy and responses. The UK is not included in the analysis presented in the 2021 report, however, as it left the EU on February 1 last year.

The review shows that coronavirus travel restrictions and border closures have failed to curb the activities of drug traffickers across the board, with both illicit producers and suppliers adapting rapidly to pandemic-related controls by moving activities online and finding new courier and distribution channels.

The 60-page document says: “Social distancing measures may have affected retail drug dealing, but this appears to have led to a greater adoption of new technologies to facilitate drug distribution, possibly accelerating the trend we have seen in recent years, where the market is becoming increasingly digitally enabled.”

It noted that “cannabis cultivation and synthetic drug production within the European Union continued at pre-pandemic levels during 2020,” with more being smuggled by sea to avoid land border closures, leading to large seizures – along with heroin – in Europe’s ports.

COVID-19 and Consumption

Herbal cannabis and cannabis resin accounted for the largest number of reported EU drug seizures in 2019 at 37% and 36% respectively. By contrast cocaine came in at 11%, amphetamines at 5%, other substances at 4%, heroin and MDMA both at 3%, and cannabis plants at 1%.

The report noted a trend towards home cultivation of cannabis, partially driven by lockdown measures.

Based on data from 30 countries that undertook a survey between 2015 and 2020, past year cannabis use among EU inhabitants aged 15-34 was estimated at an average of 15.4%, ranging from 3.4 % in Hungary to 21.8 % in France.

When only 15-to-24-year-olds were considered, the prevalence of cannabis use was higher, with 19.2 % (9.1m) having used the drug in the last year and 10.3 % (4.9m) in the last month.

But cannabis use amongst 15-16-year-olds has declined, the report suggests. Among the 24 EU member states participating in the 2019 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), the prevalence of cannabis use amongst students aged 15 and 16 ranged from 7% to 23%, with a weighted average of 17.3%. This had fallen off from a peak of 20.4% in 2011.

When looking at combined data, across all age groups, past-year cannabis use was highest amongst inhabitants in France (11%), Spain (10.5%), Italy (10.2%) and Croatia (10.2%). Cannabis use was least prevalent in Malta (0.9%), Turkey (1.1%), Hungary (1.3%) and Lithuania (2.7%). The combined average for past-year cannabis use among inhabitants of the European countries included in the survey was 5.8%.

In 2019, EU Member States reported 326 000 seizures of cannabis resin amounting to 465 tonnes, and 313,000 seizures of herbal cannabis amounting to 148 tonnes. Additionally, Turkey reported 6,200 seizures of cannabis resin amounting to 28 tonnes and 64,000 seizures of herbal cannabis totalling 63 tonnes.

New Psychoactive Discoveries

The EMCDDA report also found that traffickers and producers aren’t just dealing in the traditional mainstays of cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Some 400 new psychoactive drugs were discovered on the market in 2019.

“Potent new synthetic cannabinoids and new synthetic opioids continued to emerge, posing health and social threats,” it says.

“Reports of cannabis adulterated with new synthetic cannabinoids, such as MDMB-4en-PINACA, being sold to unsuspecting users highlight the new and potentially growing risks of the inadvertent consumption of these potent substances.

“New dosage forms for synthetic cannabinoids, including e-liquids and impregnated papers, are increasingly available on the drug market.”

Worryingly, they were found to be most prevalent amongst 15 and 16-year-olds.

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THC Content of Illicit Market Cannabis in Europe at an All-Time High

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