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BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS
 
HOW ILLEGAL 
DRUGS SUSTAIN 
ORGANISED CRIME 
IN THE EU

TS
REDI
TO C
PHO
Shutterstock: pages 1,6,9,12,14 and 16.
BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS 
HOW ILLEGAL DRUGS SUSTAIN ORGANISED 
CRIME IN THE EU
 
© European Union Agency for Law Enforcement 
Cooperation (Europol), 2017.
Reproduction is authorised provided the source is 
acknowledged. For any use or reproduction of individual 
photos, permission must be sought directly from the 
copyright holders.
www.europol.europa.eu
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available on the internet.

CONTENTS
KEY JUDGMENTS
04
INTRODUCTION
06 The European drug markets
Europol’s support in the fight against the drug trade 
The EU Policy Cycle for Serious and Organised Crime 
EMERGING THREATS
09 The Darknet trade in illegal drugs 
New psychoactive substances (NPS) on European drug markets 
Fentanyl and its analogues – deadly synthetic opioids 
SITUATIONAL PICTURE 
12 Cannabis 
Cocaine 
Heroin 
Synthetic drugs and NPS 
LINKS TO THE TRADE IN ILLEGAL DRUGS
15 Terrorism 
Money laundering
 

TS
The market for il egal drugs is 
the largest criminal market in the 
European Union (EU). The drugs 
trade in the EU is conservatively 
estimated to generate around 
EUR 24 bil ion in revenue each 
The market for cannabis remains 
year.
by far the largest drugs market 
in the EU. There has been a 
further increase in the indoor 
and outdoor cultivation of 
herbal cannabis in and close to 
consumer markets. 
Around 35% of the Organised 
Crime Groups (OCGs) active in 
04
KEY JUDGMEN
the EU on an international level 
are involved in the production, 
trafficking or distribution of il egal 
More OCGs are involved in 
drugs.
cocaine trafficking than any other 
criminal activity in the EU. The 
significant increase in production 
in Colombia has resulted in 
intensified trafficking activity to 
the EU.
75% of the OCGs involved in the 
drugs trade in the EU deal in 
more than just one il egal drug.
The Balkan route remains the 
main entry route for the bulk of 
the heroin trafficked to the EU. 
However, there has been a partial 
shift in the trafficking of heroin 
from the Balkan route to the 
Caucasus route. 

The market for synthetic drugs 
and NPS remains the most 
dynamic drugs market in the 
EU. Various synthetic drugs and 
continuously emerging New 
Psychoactive Substances (NPS) 
constitute a significant threat for 
Drugs are now widely traded 
public health in the EU.
online on various platforms. 
The sale of drugs via Darknet 
marketplaces is a significant 
threat and continues to expand.
Drug overdose deaths in Europe 
rose 6% to 8,441 in 2015, rising 
05
for the third consecutive year, 
driven by increasing use of 
synthetic opioids like fentanyl. 
The scale of money laundering 
The European Monitoring 
activities in the EU is significant 
Centre for Drugs and Drugs 
reflecting the immense profits 
Addiction (EMCDDA) warned that 
generated by the OCGs involved 
drug-related deaths in Europe 
in the drugs trade and other 
could be much higher due to 
serious and organised crime. 
“systematic under-reporting in 
However, the global anti-
some countries” and delays in 
money laundering framework 
reporting.1
implemented by law enforcement 
and other authorities in the EU 
1 EMCDDA 2017, European Drug Report 2017, 
has shown to have a poor success 
accessible at http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/edr2017_
rate in identifying and seizing 
en; Reuters 2017, Drug deaths on the rise in Europe for 
third year: report [06 June 2017], accessible at http://
il egal funds generated by criminal 
af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKBN18X1W4  
organisations. Barely 1% of 
criminal proceeds are confiscated 
by relevant authorities at EU 
level.2
2 Europol 2017, From Suspicion to Action - Converting 
financial intel igence into greater operational impact, 
accessible at https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/
default/files/documents/ql-01-17-932-en-c_pf_final.
pdf 
BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS – HOW ILLEGAL DRUGS SUSTAIN ORGANISED CRIME IN THE EU


INTRODUCTION
The European Drug Markets
06 Drug markets remain the largest criminal  of the OCGs involved in the trafficking 
markets in the EU. More than one third 
of one drug also traffic and distribute 
of the criminal groups active in the EU 
other types of drugs. Some 65% of 
are involved in the production, trafficking 
OCGs involved in the drug trade are 
or distribution of various types of drugs. 
simultaneously involved in other criminal 
TECHNOLOGY
The trade in il icit drugs generates 
activities such as the trade in counterfeit 
Technology has an impact on 
multi-bil ion euro profits for the groups 
goods, THB and migrant smuggling. Drugs 
the production methods used to 
involved in this criminal activity. The EU 
are also used as a means of payment 
manufacture drugs in the EU. Technical 
retail drug market is estimated to be 
among criminal groups. In the period 
innovation and the accessibility of 
worth at least EUR 24 bil ion a year.3 The 
between 2013 and March 2016, more 
sophisticated equipment have al owed 
immense profits generated from the 
than 60 nationalities were involved in 
OCGs to maximise the production output 
trade in drugs fund various other criminal  drugs trafficking crimes in the EU.
of individual sites. Large-scale cannabis 
activities al owing OCGs to thrive and 
cultivation sites are often maintained 
develop their criminal enterprises at the 
Drugs are also used as a means of 
using professional growing equipment 
expense of the health, prosperity and 
payment among criminal groups. 
such as climate control systems, CO2 and 
security of EU citizens.
Herbal cannabis and cannabis resin 
are exchanged for other drugs such as 
ozone generators. Similarly, laboratories 
OCGs involved in drug trafficking rely 
cocaine trafficked to the EU from South 
manufacturing synthetic drugs feature 
heavily on corruption to facilitate their 
America, heroin smuggled via Turkey and 
advanced chemical equipment and 
trafficking activities. They also make 
methamphetamine produced in the EU.  
production lines capable of producing 
use of fraudulent documents such as 
In some cases, couriers arriving in the EU 
synthetic drugs on an industrial scale.  
fake import or company registration 
with cocaine travel back to the country of 
OCGs involved in the drugs trade are 
certificates to import il icit drugs among 
origin with cannabis resin.
highly adept at exploiting communication 
legal goods, to procure (pre-)precursors 
technologies to facilitate their business. 
and purchase equipment used as part of 
In an increasingly competitive market 
Encryption and other technical means 
production processes.
featuring multiple producers and 
distributors, OCGs engage in rivalries 
of obfuscating lines of communication 
to stake territories and distribution 
make it increasingly difficult for law 
CRIMINAL GROUPS
channels. In some cases, OCG 
enforcement authorities to identify and 
disrupt these OCGs.
The OCGs involved in the drugs trade 
competition involves the use of violence 
are highly poly-criminal. More than 75% 
and raids on the cultivation sites of rival 
Drone technology is expected to advance 
groups.
al owing drones to travel greater 
3 EMCDDA & Europol 2016, EU Drug Markets Report 
distances and carry heavier loads as 
2016


well as making them more affordable. 
OCGs involved in drug trafficking will 
likely invest in drone technology for 
The environmental impact of the drugs 
trafficking purposes in order to avoid 
trade is also considerable. The cultivation 
of cannabis increasingly entails the 
07
checks at border crossing points, ports 
and airports.
use of uncontrol ed pesticides and 
insecticides, which may be harmful 
to the environment. Synthetic drug 
HARM
lethal overdose.
manufacturing produces significant 
The most immediate impact of the 
Drug deaths on the 
amounts of hazardous waste. OCGs dump 
trade in il icit drugs is on the health of 
this waste away from their production 
rise in Europe for 
users. The consumption of all types of 
sites in order to conceal their activities. 
il icit drugs entails significant health risk 
third year4
Dump sites are often highly contaminated 
with potential y lethal consequences. 
and require a lengthy and costly clean-up 
Drug overdose deaths in 
The consumption of cannabis may have 
process.
Europe rose 6% to 8,441 
serious health and social implications 
in 2015, rising for the third 
for some consumers, especial y cannabis 
consecutive year, driven by 
cultivated to feature a high THC content. 
increasing use of synthetic 
Europol’s support in the 
Cannabis is the most frequently noted 
opioids like fentanyl, 
fight against the drug trade
reason for first-time admission to drug 
according to the EMCDDA.
treatment programmes in the EU. The 
use of heroin is associated with serious 
The agency warned that 
health harms including dependence, 
drug-related deaths in 
Europol is the EU’s law enforcement 
overdose and death; unsafe injection 
Europe could be much 
agency and assists the Member States in 
practices and multiple daily injections 
higher due to “systematic 
their fight against serious international 
increase the risk for infectious diseases, 
under-reporting in some 
crime and terrorism. Established as an EU 
such as HIV, hepatitis C virus (HCV) 
countries” and delays in 
agency in 20095, Europol, the European 
and other infections. The long-term 
reporting.
Union Agency for Law Enforcement 
effects of NPS are virtual y unknown 
Cooperation, is at the heart of the 
due to the frequent appearance of 
European security architecture and offers 
4 EMCDDA 2017, European Drug 
previously unknown NPS. Some NPS 
Report 2017, accessible at http://
a unique range of services. Europol is 
have proven extremely harmful to 
www.emcdda.europa.eu/edr2017_en; 
a support centre for law enforcement 
Reuters 2017, Drug deaths on the 
consumers. Synthetic drugs such as 
rise in Europe for third year: report 
5
methamphetamine can be highly 
[06 June 2017], accessible at http://
  Council Decision of 6 April 2009 establishing the 
European Police Office (Europol) (2009/371/JHA), 
addictive and their consumption entails 
af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/
idAFKBN18X1W4  
accessible at https://www.europol.europa.eu/
serious health risks including the risk of 
publications-documents/council-decision-of-6-april-
2009-establishing-european-police-office-europol 
BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS – HOW ILLEGAL DRUGS SUSTAIN ORGANISED CRIME IN THE EU


operations, a hub for information on criminal activities as 
well as a centre for law enforcement expertise. Analysis is at 
the core of Europol’s activities. To give its partners deeper 
insights into the crimes they are tackling, Europol produces 
regular assessments that offer comprehensive, forward-
looking analyses of crime and terrorism in the EU.
Europol supports the Member States in the fight against 
High-level conference 
il egal drugs with a team of experienced specialists and 
analysts based in the European Serious and Organised Crime 
at Europol to discuss 
Centre. They provide operational, coordination and analysis 
enhancing the fight against 
support to investigating officers in the Member States.
illegal drugs
A large share of the information flowing to Europol from 
In addition to operational support, 
EU law enforcement authorities concerns drug-related 
Europol also works with Member States 
investigations and operations. In 2016, information related 
and Third Partners to establish a joint 
to drugs and migrant smuggling were the most frequently 
strategic approach in fighting drug-
exchanged type of information via Europol. The number 
related criminality. On 6 and 7 December 
of contributions related to drug-criminality received by 
2017, the Heads of Drugs Units of all 
Europol has steadily increased over the last years. In 2016, 
Member States, representatives of 
Europol received more than 9000 contributions related to 
relevant Third Partners and EU agencies 
the trade in il egal drugs. Currently, Europol supports more 
such as Eurojust and the European 
than 100 high-priority cases at an international level often 
Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs 
involving multiple Member States and partner countries 
Addiction will gather at Europol to 
targeting sophisticated criminal organisations involved in 
identify and discuss the implementation 
the production, trafficking and distribution of il egal drugs. 
of new ways to tackle one of the most 
Europol continuously supports Member States in executing 
threatening criminal phenomena in the 
complex operations targeting high-value targets that often 
EU – the trade in il egal drugs.
result in the seizure of very significant amounts of various 
types of drugs.
The conference complements the 
Evaluation of the implementation of the 
EU Drugs Strategy 2013-2020 and the EU 
08 The EU Policy Cycle for Serious and 
Action Plan on Drugs 2013-2016 by the 
Organised Crime
European Commission. According to this 
evaluation, available evidence shows that 
there has been at least some progress in 
all EU Action Plan actions aimed at drug 
The Policy Cycle provides a robust framework that brings 
supply reduction, however, a significant 
together the law enforcement authorities of the Member 
reduction of the supply of drugs was not 
States, Europol and a wide range of multi-disciplinary 
recorded in recent years.
partners in the fight against serious and organised crime. 
The Policy Cycle translates strategic objectives at the 
Building on the findings of the evaluation, 
European level into concrete operational actions against 
the new Action Plan on Drugs 2017-2020 
serious and organised crime.
provides a strengthened response to 
the newly-emerging health and security 
Based on the analytical findings of the European Union 
chal enges in the area of il icit drug use 
Serious and Organised Threat Assessment (EU SOCTA) 
and trafficking. While maintaining and 
2017, the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU set 
updating the core policy areas and cross-
the priorities for the fight against serious and organised 
cutting themes of the overall EU Drugs 
crime for the second full policy cycle from 2018 to 2021 
Strategy, the new Action Plan identifies 
in May 2017. The Council Conclusions clearly identify the 
new priority areas for action, including 
production, trafficking and distribution of il egal drugs as a 
the monitoring of new psychoactive 
key priority in the fight against serious and organised crime:
substances as well as the use of new 
To (1) disrupt the activities of Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) 
communication technologies in il icit drug 
involved in the wholesale trafficking of cannabis, cocaine and 
production and trafficking and evidence 
heroin to the EU, to (2) tackle the criminal networks involved 
gathering on the potential connection 
in the trafficking and distribution of multiple types of drugs 
between drug trafficking and financing 
on EU markets and to (3) reduce the production of synthetic 
of terrorist groups, organised crime, 
drugs and New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) in the EU and 
migrant smuggling or trafficking in human 
to dismantle OCGs involved in their production, trafficking 
beings.
and distribution.
This priority will largely determine the operational work 
carried out in the framework of the Policy Cycle for the next 
four years.


are lone offenders, dealing in small 
amounts, it is reported that many of the 
09
‘top sel ers’ are likely organised crime 
groups earning significant profits.
The Darknet trade in il egal 
Darknet marketplaces are attractive 
platforms for clients and vendors alike. 
drugs
They provide an anonymous and secure 
environment to trade all types of il egal 
drugs and other il egal commodities. The 
The Darknet has emerged as a key 
 
use of cryptocurrencies al ows vendors 
platform to offer all types of il icit goods 
and clients to exchange payments with 
and services. Difficult to police yet easy 
little trace and represent a significant 
to access, the Darknet provides an ideal 
hurdle in the attribution of transactions 
environment for the distribution of all 
to specific users. The trust and reputation 
types of il egal commodities including 
system used by Darknet marketplaces 
drugs, firearms, child abuse material, 
emulates those established by legal 
counterfeit goods,  and fraudulent 
trading platforms on the surface web.  
documents. The trade in il egal drugs 
The trade in il egal drugs on Darknet 
is the mainstay of most major Darknet 
marketplaces has resulted in a significant 
markets. The majority of activity on 
RGING
increase in the use of post and parcel 
Darknet markets is drug related, with 
services to traffic drugs across the EU.
some studies estimating that 57% of Dark 
market listings offer drugs. It is estimated 
that the top 1% most successful 
vendors are responsible for 51.5% of all 
transactions on Darknet markets.6 While 
EME THREATS
it is assessed that the majority of vendors 
6 Carnegie Mel on University 2015, Measuring the 
Longitudinal Evolution of the Online Anonymous 
Marketplace Ecosystem, available at https://www.
usenix.org/system/files/conference/usenixsecurity15/
sec15-paper-soska-updated.pdf 
BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS – HOW ILLEGAL DRUGS SUSTAIN ORGANISED CRIME IN THE EU

New psychoactive 
drug markets are medicines diverted 
from legal supply, many are deliberately 
substances (NPS) on 
produced for the il icit drugs market. 
European drug markets
There has been large increase in the 
availability of fentanils on the European 
il icit drug market in the past few years 
Previously unknown NPS continue to 
mainly as a result of bulk production in 
appear on EU markets in large numbers. 
China and their online sale. Reports of 
Since 2005, 620 new substances 
deaths have also substantial y increased.
were detected in the EU for the first 
Since 2012, a total of 24 new fentanils 
time.7 NPS are initial y not covered by 
have been identified on Europe’s drug 
international drug controls and include 
market — including 14 since January 
various substances such as synthetic 
2016. During this period there has also 
cannabinoids, stimulants, opioids and 
Fentanyl deaths: 
been a large increase in seizures by law 
benzodiazepines. In many cases these 
Warning as drug 
enforcement at international borders and 
NPS emulate the effect of traditional 
at street-level. Reports of fatal poisonings 
drugs such as cannabis or cocaine and are 
kills ‘at least 60’10
have also increased substantial y. 
marketed as alternatives for these drugs.
Where known, the vast majority of 
The consumption of NPS entails 
At least 60 people have 
shipments of new fentanils coming 
significant risks to the health of users 
died in the UK in the last 
into Europe originate from chemical 
including lethal overdose. In 2015, the 
eight months after taking 
and pharmaceutical companies based 
synthetic opioid acetylfentanyl was linked 
the strong painkiller 
in China. However, production in il icit 
to 32 deaths in Europe.8 Many other 
fentanyl. 
laboratories, including in Europe, have 
NPS have been linked to health risks and 
also been reported. Typical y, synthesis of 
deaths in the EU over recent years. 
Tests on heroin 
seized by police since 
fentanils is relatively straightforward.
NPS continue to be produced in China 
November found traces 
As new fentanils are not control ed 
and, to a lesser degree, India and 
of the synthetic drug, 
under the United Nations international 
trafficked to the EU in large quantities. 
with more than 70 
10
drug control conventions they can be 
NPS are sold on online marketplaces and 
further deaths pending 
manufactured and traded relatively freely 
distributed via postal and parcel services 
toxicology reports, the 
and openly in many countries — which 
across Europe. NPS are shipped to the EU 
National Crime Agency 
has been exploited by entrepreneurs 
in bulk where these substances are often 
(NCA) said. 
and organised crime using chemical and 
processed and packaged for distribution.
Some contained 
pharmaceutical companies based in 
carfentanyl, which is 
China. The fentanils are typical y shipped 
to Europe by express mail services and 
Fentanyl and its analogues 
10,000 times stronger 
courier services. They are then sold as 
than morphine and 
– deadly synthetic opioids9
‘legal’ replacements to il icit opioids 
often used to tranquillize 
on the surface web and anonymous 
elephants. Health 
marketplaces on the darknet. Unknown 
officials and police have 
to users, they are also sold directly on 
The fentanils are a family of highly potent 
warned heroin users to 
the il icit drug market as heroin or mixed 
opioid narcotic drugs. A small number are 
be “extra careful”. They 
with heroin, as counterfeit medicines, 
widely used as medicines in anaesthesia, 
were predominantly men 
and as other il icit drugs such as cocaine. 
for pain relief, and the immobilisation of 
and a range of ages, with 
This places users at serious risk of life-
large animals. Due to their psychoactive 
none younger than 18.
threatening poisoning.
effects, such as causing euphoria, they 
are also used as replacements for heroin 
Recent NCA 
Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues available 
and other il icit opioids. Typical y, use 
investigations found 
on European drug markets are either licit 
of very small amounts of fentanils can 
that fentanyl and its 
pharmaceutical products diverted from 
quickly poison an individual by causing 
analogues are being both 
legal supply or il icit drugs produced in 
central nervous system depression and 
supplied in and exported 
clandestine laboratories. The potency of 
respiratory depression. Left untreated, 
from the UK.
il egal y produced fentanils is typical y 
poisoning may cause death.
higher than those diverted from legal 
supply and their effect on the users is 
While some fentanils on the European 
therefore less predictable.
7 EMCDDA 2017, European Drugs Report 2017
10 BBC News 2017, Fentanyl deaths: 
8
Warning as drug kil s ‘at least 60’ 
 EMCDDA & Europol 2016, EU Drug Markets Report 
[1 August 2017], accessible at 
2016
http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-
9 Based on a contribution by the EMCDDA (November 
england-40793887
2017)

Major international law enforcement operations 
shut down AlphaBay and Hansa
Two major law enforcement operations, led by the Federal 
addresses for a large number of orders. Some 10 000 
Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the US Drug Enforcement 
foreign addresses of Hansa market buyers were passed on 
Agency (DEA) and the Dutch National Police, with the 
to Europol.
support of Europol, have shut down the infrastructure of an 
underground criminal economy responsible for the trading 
In the meantime, an FBI and DEA-led operation, cal ed 
of over 350 000 il icit commodities including drugs, firearms 
Bayonet, was able to identify the creator and administrator 
and cybercrime malware. The coordinated law enforcement  of AlphaBay, a Canadian citizen living a luxurious life in 
action in Europe and the US ranks as one of the most 
Thailand. On 5 July 2017, the main suspect was arrested in 
sophisticated take-down operations ever seen in the fight 
Thailand and the site taken down. Mil ions of dol ars’ worth 
against criminal activities online.
of cryptocurrencies were frozen and seized. Servers were 
also seized in Canada and the Netherlands.
AlphaBay was the largest criminal marketplace on the 
Dark Web, utilising a hidden service on the Tor network to 
LAW ENFORCEMENT STRATEGY
effectively mask user identities and server locations. Prior 
to its take-down, AlphaBay reached over 200 000 users and 
In shutting down two of the three largest criminal 
40 000 vendors. There were over 250 000 listings for il egal 
marketplaces on the Dark Web, a major element of the 
drugs and toxic chemicals on AlphaBay, and over 100 000 
infrastructure of the underground criminal economy 
listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents 
has been taken offline. It has severely disrupted criminal 
and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other 
enterprises around the world, has led to the arrest of key 
computer hacking tools, firearms, and fraudulent services. 
figures involved in online criminal activity, and yielded 
 A conservative estimation of USD 1 bil ion was transacted 
huge amounts of intel igence that will lead to further 
in the market since its creation in 2014. Transactions were 
investigations. But what made this operation real y special 
paid in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Hansa was the 
was the strategy developed by the FBI, DEA, the Dutch 
third largest criminal marketplace on the Dark Web, trading 
Police and Europol to magnify the disruptive impact of 
similarly high volumes in il icit drugs and other commodities.  the joint action to take out AlphaBay and Hansa. This 
The two markets were created to facilitate the expansion 
involved taking covert control of Hansa under Dutch 
11
of a major underground criminal economy, which affected 
judicial authority, which al owed Dutch police to monitor 
the lives of thousands of people around the world and 
the activity of users without their knowledge, and then 
was expressly designed to frustrate the ability of law 
shutting down AlphaBay during the same period. It meant 
enforcement to bring offenders to justice.
the Dutch police could identify and disrupt the regular 
criminal activity on Hansa but then also sweep up all those 
THE INVESTIGATIONS
new users displaced from AlphaBay who were looking for 
a new trading platform. In fact they flocked to Hansa in 
Europol has been supporting the investigation of criminal 
their droves, with an eight-fold increase in the number of 
marketplaces on the Dark Web for a number of years. 
new members of Hansa recorded immediately fol owing 
Europol and partner agencies supported the Dutch National 
the shutdown of AlphaBay. As a law enforcement strategy, 
Police to take over the Hansa marketplace on 20 June 2017 
leveraging the combined operational and technical 
under Dutch judicial authorisation, facilitating the covert 
strengths of multiple agencies in the US and Europe, it has 
monitoring of criminal activities on the platform until it 
been an extraordinary success and a stark il ustration of the 
was shut down on 20 July 2017. The Dutch Police col ected 
col ective power the global law enforcement community can 
valuable information on high value targets and delivery 
bring to disrupt major criminal activity.
USERS
AlphaBay was taken 
Two weeks later, the 
The Dutch Police 
down on 4 July 
number of users in 
shut down Hansa 
2017  
HANSA increased 
marketplace on 20 
 
eightfold
 
July 2017
  
BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS – HOW ILLEGAL DRUGS SUSTAIN ORGANISED CRIME IN THE EU


ICTURE
Cannabis
Cannabis remains, by far, the most 
widely consumed il egal drug in the EU. 
Cannabis is distributed on EU markets as 
cannabis resin and herbal cannabis. In 
recent years, herbal cannabis has been 
increasingly popular with consumers, 
which has led to an increase in the 
production and availability of herbal 
cannabis within the EU and in countries 
close to EU markets. Market stability 
indicates the success of the business 
model of the OCGs involved in this crime 
area as well as the key role played by 
organised crime in the trade in this il egal 
12
Growing equipment, seeds and other raw 
drug. 
materials used for cannabis cultivation 
in the EU are available online. Growing 
Cannabis is set to remain popular with 
technologies have advanced al owing 
consumers and, as a consequence, will 
OCGs to automate the maintenance 
continue to generate significant profits 
of cultivation sites and reduce the risk 
for the OCGs involved in its production, 
of detection. The indoor cultivation of 
trafficking and distribution. The indoor 
herbal cannabis in the EU is expected 
cultivation of herbal cannabis has proven 
to further expand over the coming 
a successful business model for OCGs 
years with new growing techniques 
and various groups will likely continue to 
and increasingly sophisticated growing 
invest in cultivation sites across the EU.
technologies being used by OCGs in order 
to increase harvest yields and profits. 
PRODUCTION IN THE EU
SITUATIONAL P
The production of herbal cannabis within 
TRAFFICKING
the EU for domestic consumption has 
Albania remains the main source of 
increased significantly over recent years. 
herbal cannabis trafficked to the EU. The 
The indoor and outdoor cultivation of 
main source of cannabis resin consumed 
herbal cannabis in the Member States 
in the EU is Morocco from where it is 
or in countries close to EU consumer 
trafficked to the EU primarily by sea and 
markets is now likely the main source of 
road transport. Cannabis resin originating 
herbal cannabis distributed in the EU. 
from Morocco is increasingly smuggled 
Indoor cultivation of cannabis takes place 
to the EU across the Mediterranean Sea 
in most, if not al , Member States on 
departing from Libya. 
different scales. 
Using front companies and middlemen, 
some OCGs operate their own cargo 
vessels or even small fleets of cargo 
vessels transporting multi-tonne 
shipments of cannabis. Cannabis resin 
is trafficked to the EU in containers 
concealed among legal goods. 


Cocaine
The trafficking and distribution of cocaine 
is the most common criminal activity 
related to drugs among OCGs active 
in the EU and generates multi-bil ion 
profits for the criminal actors involved. 
The annual retail market for cocaine in 
by couriers. In some cases, OCGs use 
Europe is conservatively estimated at 
smal er leisure boats as well light aircraft 
EUR 5.7 bil ion. OCGs involved in cocaine 
to smuggle cocaine to and within the EU. 
trafficking col aborate extensively in the 
Most cocaine trafficked in containers 
trafficking and distribution of cocaine to 
arrives in the EU at major sea ports, 
an extent that it is difficult to delineate 
where OCGs often rely on corrupt port 
between the different OCGs involved in 
workers and other staff to extract the 
the trafficking activity in South America, 
cocaine shipments from the containers. 
Africa and the EU. 
Cocaine trafficked by air arrives at major 
EU airports often fol owing multiple 
PRODUCTION
changes as part of the couriers’ journey 
Cocaine is primarily produced in 
in order to obscure their original point 
Colombia, Peru and Bolivia and trafficked 
of departure.  Smal er shipments of 
to the EU via other South American 
cocaine are frequently trafficked to 
countries, the Caribbean Sea region 
the EU in couriers’ luggage or by body-
and West Africa. Colombia remains the 
packers. Cruise ships departing from the 
biggest producer of cocaine in the world. 
Caribbean Sea region are increasingly 
being used to traffic cocaine to the EU.
13
TRAFFICKING
Cocaine also continues to be smuggled 
incorporated into other items or as 
Cocaine is typical y trafficked as part 
liquid odourless substances and is later 
of large shipments in containers and 
extracted and converted into cocaine 
marine vessels or in smal er quantities 
hydrochloride in dedicated secondary 
extraction and conversion laboratories. 
The EU is increasingly used as a 
transhipment point for cocaine trafficked 
from South America to destinations in 
Asia and the Middle East.
Significant increase 
Over the last three years, the production 
compared to the previous year.12  
of cocaine in Colombia has intensified 
in cocaine trafficking 
significantly fol owing a peace accord 
This unprecedented increase in cocaine 
activities and seizures in 
between the government of Colombia 
production has resulted in intensified 
trafficking activity to the EU. While the 
the EU
and Revolutionary Armed Forces 
of Colombia - People’s Army (FARC) 
established routes and modi operandi 
insurgents. The production output of 
such as the trafficking of cocaine in 
cocaine increased by 60% from 2014 
containers and the use of couriers have 
to 2015.
largely remained the same, the number 
11 Between 2015 and 2016, 
Colombian coca cultivation areas 
and quantities of cocaine seizures in the 
expanded by 52% representing a further 
EU have notably increased.
increase in production output of 34% 
11 United States Department of State 2017, International 
12 UNODC 2017, UNODC Colombia Cultivation Survey, 
Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Vol I, Drug and 
accessible at http://www.unodc.org/documents/
Chemical Control.
colombia/2017/julio/CENSO_2017_WEB_baja.pdf
BUSINESS FUNDAMENTALS – HOW ILLEGAL DRUGS SUSTAIN ORGANISED CRIME IN THE EU


Heroin
OCGs active in the trafficking and 
Synthetic drugs and NPS
distribution of heroin rely on an 
The market for synthetic drugs continues 
established and successful business 
to be most dynamic of the drugs markets 
model generating significant profits. 
in the EU. OCGs based in the EU remain 
Despite a reported moderate decline 
among the most prolific producers of 
in heroin consumption levels in the EU, 
various types of synthetic drugs in the 
heroin continues to be trafficked to the 
world.  
EU in large quantities. 
PRODUCTION
PRODUCTION
The production of different types 
Afghanistan remains the leading producer  of synthetic drugs takes place in 
of heroin trafficked to the EU. The 
various Member States. The intended 
production output of opium and heroin in  destination markets for synthetic drugs 
Afghanistan is very high and is projected 
produced in the EU vary according to 
to remain so for the foreseeable future. 
the substance and production location. 
The estimated Afghan production output 
A share of the large-scale production of 
of opium in 2016 is approximately 
3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine 
4800 tonnes, which could yield more 
(MDMA), amphetamine and, to a lesser 
between 290 and 510 tonnes of heroin 
extent, methamphetamine in the EU 
in production.13 OCGs are thought to use 
14
is intended for trafficking to markets 
established trafficking infrastructure to 
outside the EU, while the production of 
traffic acetic anhydride, the precursor 
synthetic drugs in other parts of the EU 
used for heroin production, in large 
predominantly supplies domestic and 
quantities. 
neighbouring EU markets.
TRAFFICKING
PRECURSORS AND                
A large share of the heroin consumed 
PRE-PRECURSORS
in the Member States is trafficked via 
OCGs producing synthetic drugs in the 
the Balkan route to the EU - overland, 
EU continue to be highly flexible and 
by sea or by air. Repeated large seizures 
will remain so in the future. They are 
indicate the growing importance of the 
quick to adopt alternative precursor and 
Caucasus route.  The Southern Caucasus 
pre-precursor substances in reaction to 
region is an alternative transit hub for the  any shortages in established precursor 
trafficking of large quantities of heroin 
substances.  Some OCGs have specialised 
from Iran to the EU.  
in the procurement and production of 
OCGs involved in heroin trafficking 
pre-precursor and precursor substances 
increasingly traffic heroin in large 
supplying OCGs producing and 
individual shipments in excess of 100 
distributing synthetic drugs in the EU.
kilograms per shipment. Large shipments 
are also transported via the Southern 
TRAFFICKING
route, with East Africa and South Africa 
as transhipment points, to key ports in 
Synthetic drugs produced in the EU 
Western Europe.
are trafficked within the EU and to 
destination markets outside the EU 
Couriers continue to be used to 
mainly by couriers and parcels. Larger 
traffic heroin to the EU. Heroin is also 
shipments trafficked within the EU are 
available on online marketplaces and is 
typical y concealed in private vehicles and 
occasional y distributed across the EU 
on lorries. In some cases, large shipments 
in small quantities via post and parcel 
of synthetic drugs are trafficked to 
services.
destinations outside the EU in maritime 
shipping containers. 
13 United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 
2016, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2016, p. 38, accessible 
at https://www.unodc.org/documents/press/releases/
AfghanistanOpiumSurvey2016.pdf 


cases, these OCGs launder these funds 
by themselves investing in businesses, 
real estate and other ventures across 
and outside the EU. However, the most 
successful drug trafficking networks 
also make use of money laundering 
syndicates, which have specialised in 
laundering the proceeds of other OCGs in 
exchange for a fee.
The scale of money laundering activities 
in the EU is significant reflecting the 
immense profits generated by the OCGs 
involved in the drugs trade and other 
Terrorism
serious and organised crime. However, 
the global anti-money laundering 
Terrorism and the groups carrying 
framework implemented by law 
out terrorist offences have evolved 
enforcement and other authorities in the 
significantly over the last decade. The EU 
EU has shown to have a poor success rate 
has been the target of repeated terror 
in identifying and seizing il egal funds 
attacks and plots in recent years. The 
generated by criminal organisations. 
trafficking and sale of il egal drugs in 
Between 0.7-1.28% of annual EU GDP is 
the EU is believed to primarily finance 
detected as being involved in suspect 
terrorist activities outside the EU. 
financial activity. In 2014, EU Financial 
Intel igence Units (FIUs) received almost 
15
The pursuit of criminal activities in 
support of terrorist activities is not a 
1 mil ion reports. Although the overall 
new phenomenon.  Routes used to traffic 
LINKS 
number of suspicious transaction 
cannabis and heroin traverse the same 
reports (STRs) continues to increase, 
regions, such as the Western Balkans, 
only around 10% of these reports are 
that are also linked to terrorism-related 
further investigated – a figure that is 
activities including terrorism financing. 
TO THE 
largely unchanged since 2006. Even 
The actors involved in terrorism with 
where further investigated, the likelihood 
links to serious and organised crime use 
of successful asset recovery is low, 
criminal infrastructures to facilitate their 
and barely 1% of criminal proceeds are 
terrorism-related activities.
TRADE IN 
confiscated by relevant authorities at EU 
level. 14
EU-based criminals specialising in 
the production of synthetic drugs 
Money laundering is also increasingly a 
are believed to be involved in the 
ILLEGAL 
technical chal enge for law enforcement 
production of amphetamine used to 
authorities. Criminal networks 
manufacture “captagon” in the Middle 
continuously seek to exploit the latest 
East. “Captagon” is a popular drug in the 
DRUGS
technological developments such as 
Middle East and known to be used as a 
cryptocurrencies and anonymous 
psychostimulant in combat situations. 
payment methods. Rapid transaction 
The trade in this substance is likely a 
processing and the proliferation of 
source of finance for the activities of 
effective anonymisation tools are 
terrorist actors.  
significant obstacles in the identification 
of the beneficial owners of criminal 
proceeds. A growing number of online 
Money laundering
platforms and applications offer new 
ways of transferring money and are not 
Money laundering al ows OCGs to 
always regulated to the same degree as 
introduce the proceeds of crime into the 
traditional financial service providers.
legitimate economy. Almost all criminal 
groups need to launder profits generated 
14 Europol 2017, From Suspicion to Action - Converting 
from criminal activities. The trade in 
financial intel igence into greater operational impact, 
accessible at https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/
il egal drugs generates substantial 
default/files/documents/ql-01-17-932-en-c_pf_final.
profits for the OCGs involved.  In some 
pdf
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DRUGS SUSTAIN 
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