By / November 21, 2023

Illicit Cannabis Market Valued at €11.4 Billion in EU, According to a New Report

Last week, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) released its detailed report on the illicit cannabis market in the European Union.

The report, based on the latest data from the EMCDDA and its co-author Europol, reveals the extent of the illicit cannabis market, valued at 11.4 billion euros, which is believed to have served 22.6 million Europeans over the past year.

Although the size of the illicit cannabis market “remains stable,” the report raises a number of major concerns, including a significant increase in THC potency, the rapid emergence of semi-synthetic cannabinoids such as HHC, and the environmental implications of illicit cannabis cultivation in Europe.

“All these developments are taking place while a political debate is ongoing in Europe and around the world, impacting both legal and illegal markets, creating challenges for law enforcement and criminal justice systems,” said Andrew Cunningham, Head of Markets, Crime, and Supply at the EMCDDA, during the report’s launch webinar.

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Spain, Morocco, and Western Balkans: Key Sources of Illicit Cannabis

With an estimated 22.6 million consumers last year, cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in Europe, by far, being six times greater than cocaine, the second most consumed illicit substance.

Cannabis herb, or cannabis flower, accounts for over three-quarters (77%) of the total illicit cannabis market value (at least 8.8 billion euros), while cannabis resin represents the remaining 23%, estimated at about 362 tons.

The quantity of cannabis herb seized in the EU, Norway, and Turkey reached historic highs in 2021, with more than 288 tons. According to available data, the vast majority of cannabis seized in the EU comes from a small number of countries.

One of these is Spain, which in 2021 accounted for about 51% of the total cannabis herb seized in the EU, approximately 130 tons, while Italy (47 tons) and France (nearly 40 tons) together represented another third of the total.

These figures were overshadowed by the record 850 tons of illicit cannabis resin seized in 2021 in the EU, Norway, and Turkey, with Spain once again accounting for the majority of seizures, about 82%.

“Most of the illicit cannabis resin available on the European market comes from Morocco and, due to its geographical location, Spain is the main entry point into the EU,” said Robert Patrancus, a scientific analyst at the EMCDDA.

Although Morocco remains the main source of resin in Europe, many EU countries have reported it as a source of cannabis herb in recent years, marking a diversification of the product.

In terms of cannabis herb, the report suggests that the vast majority is grown within the EU, but the Western Balkans region remains an important location for the EU’s cannabis herb supply.

However, this illicit cannabis situation is beginning to change, with Albania’s efforts to tackle the problem apparently resulting in a decrease in seizures since 2018.

“In light of these changes, to get closer to the main consumer market, some criminal networks from the Western Balkans have adopted a new business model, involving themselves in the cultivation and trafficking of cannabis within the EU.”

Notably, since North Macedonia legalized cannabis production for medical purposes in 2016, “large quantities” of legally grown products have been diverted to the illicit market, a trend also observed in Albania.

While the Americas, West Africa, and Southeast Asia are no longer considered major sources of illicit cannabis imports, there has been a recent “increase in the frequency of trafficking of cannabis herb from Canada and the United States.”

Emergence of Semi-Synthetic Cannabinoids

Another key issue raised in the report is the growing range of different cannabis consumption products extending well beyond the “old hash + weed model,” with vapes, edibles, oils, and extracts now easily available to consumers across Europe seeking alternatives to illicit cannabis.

Data suggest that the THC content in cannabis has increased by 57% in herb over the last decade, and by nearly 200% in resin, likely due to improvements in genetics and extraction techniques.

Cannabis has also become more affordable, with data taking into account costs “adjusted for purity or potency in the context of a country’s standard of living” suggesting that “your money gets you 25% more THC than before.”

The rise of semi-synthetic cannabinoids, which, according to the EMCDDA, are “mainly manufactured from CBD,” is a concerning aspect of this market diversification, evolving rapidly.

Substances such as HHC, Delta-8, and Delta-10-THC are naturally found in the cannabis plant in small amounts, the EMCDDA explains, but producers are now commonly converting non-psychoactive CBD into these psychoactive substances in laboratories.

“CBD has become a precursor,” said Laurent Laniel, a senior scientific analyst at the EMCDDA, during the webinar.

“Why have people suddenly decided to make these new semi-synthetic extracts from CBD? Because there was an oversupply of CBD in the United States and Canada. People invested money in CBD cannabis production and couldn’t sell it on the market, so they converted it into these new products to not lose their entire investment, or even make a profit.”

The danger, he adds, is that these substances are new and we do not yet have the necessary data to determine if they can be consumed safely.

Environmental Impact of Illicit Cannabis Cultivation

While the EMCDDA noted that its data on illicit cannabis cultivation sites in the EU were “incomplete,” it suggested that some 7,000 illicit cultivation sites had been dismantled in 2019 in 14 Member States. In 2020 and 2021, these figures rose to 10,000 and 9,000, respectively.

The number of illicit cannabis plants seized, a “key indicator” used to determine the extent of the illicit market, reached 4.3 million in 2021, with about 3.2 million in Spain, representing a nearly two-fold increase from 2020.

In Turkey, the number of cannabis plants seized in 2021 was 18 times higher than in the entire EU, reaching 76 million.

It is estimated that the scale of the illicit cannabis market has a significant environmental impact, given the high water and energy needs involved in cultivating large quantities of cannabis, while data availability is also improving due to the growing number of regulated markets in the EU.

Indoor cultivation of one kilogram of cannabis herb requires about 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to about 1,400 kg of carbon footprint.

To put this in perspective, a Dutch electricity network provider suggested that the electricity stolen for cannabis production in 2021 was about 1 billion kilowatt-hours. This is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of households in a city the size of Rotterdam.

Water usage is a second major environmental impact. If grown outdoors, a cannabis plant requires about 19 to 21 liters of water per day, and the average growth cycle is about 150 days.

The EMCDDA gave the specific example of an illicit cannabis cultivation site dismantled in Spain that contained 400,000 plants. Taking these figures into account, a harvest cycle would require about 1.8 billion liters of water, equivalent to the daily consumption of a country the size of Latvia.

Despite this, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of indoor illicit cannabis cultivation is 60 to 100 times greater than that of outdoor cultivation. For example, to achieve the carbon footprint of a single cannabis joint (0.3 g) grown outdoors, one would need to travel 70 meters in a hybrid electric vehicle. For indoor-grown cannabis, this figure jumps to 4.6 km.

(Featured image by CRYSTALWEED Cannabis via Unsplash)

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