On 15 November the Annual Report 2011 of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) was released. The report contains an overview of the current situation regarding the drug problem in Europe.
Margriet van Laar, head of the Drug Monitoring programme at the Trimbos Institute explains what the data contained in the EMCDDA Report mean for the situation in the Netherlands.
Cocaine: declining in popularity?
The EMCDDA Annual Report 2011 questions whether after years of growth, the increasing popularity of cocaine is coming to an end. This suggestion is based on a decline in the percentage of cocaine users in a number of countries, such as Denmark, Spain, Italy and the U.K. In the Netherlands, the percentage of recent cocaine users in the population aged between 15 and 34 as measured in 2009 was 2.4%. This is close to the European average of 2.1%.
However, owing to a lack of comparable data from earlier years we are unable to say whether this constitutes a decline. In the nightlife scene, cocaine remains the third (after cannabis and ecstasy) most frequently used illegal drug.
After years of a strongly rising trend in the number of cocaine users seeking treatment from the Dutch addiction care services, there is evidence of a decline since 2007. However, the percentage of cocaine users as a share of all drug users remains highest (after Spain) in the Netherlands (31% in 2009; 26% in 2010; this compares to 17% for the European average).
As in previous years, the number of hospital admissions related to cocaine misuse or dependency as a secondary diagnosis was low, but shows a rising trend (637 in 2009, 756 in 2010).
Research among juveniles and adults shows a decline in the number of cannabis users at European level, although cannabis remains the most popular illegal drug. In the Netherlands the trend is similar among the school-going population.
There are no trend data available for the general population. In 2009 recent cannabis use among the 15-34 year age group (14%) in the Netherlands was slightly above the European average (12%), with the highest percentages reported in the Czech Republic (22%), Spain (19%), Italy (20%) and France (17%).
The differences between countries are difficult to explain. In any case there appears to be no association between national legislation and the extent of usage, as has been demonstrated by previous research.
The EMCDDA points to a 'cat-and-mouse game' between drug producers and legislation that is designed to prevent illicit use of chemicals or precursors. As a result, the MDMA content in ecstasy pills declined in 2008 and 2009 due to a shortage of the precursor PMK, although the 'ecstasy market' seems since to have recovered. It is assumed that the drug producers have switched to using other materials (such as safrole) which is used as a precursor in the production of MDMA.
These trends in the ecstasy market were clearly visible in the Netherlands. In 2009 the average MDMA content in an ecstasy pill was 66 mg; in 2010 it had risen to 90 mg, and in early 2011 averages of over 110 mg were detected.
In addition, the EMCDDA reports a record number (41) of new drugs, which were identified by the member states in 2010 within the context of the European Early Warning System (EWS). A large number of these drugs appear to have been developed in order to get around the existing drugs legislation. These are the so-called designer drugs (also known as legal highs or research chemicals).
Drug testing services in the Netherlands sometimes come across these substances when they are submitted for analysis. To date the extent of usage appears to be relatively low, certainly by comparison with the U.K., where new designer drugs are creating considerable problems.
The EMCDDA has identified a declining trend in injecting drug use among opiate users. The Netherlands has the lowest number of injecting opiate users receiving treatment (6%), which is presumably one of the factors related to the relatively low number of (fatal) overdoses and new incidence of infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis.
In addition to this favourable trend, the EMCDDA points to a change in the opiate situation: opiate users constitute an aging population.
In the Netherlands ageing of the heroin using population has been manifest for years. In 2010 75% of this group were over the age of 39 (cp. 48% in 2002). There is little growth of new, young heroin users. Some 80% of opiate clients are registered with a methadone replacement programme. A small group of addicts, for whom other treatments don't work, receive heroin on prescription. In 2011 there were 740 treatment places in 16 municipalities.
European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2011). Annual Report 2011: the state of the drugs problem in Europe. Lisbon: EMCDDA.
Van Laar, M., Cruts, G., Van Gageldonk, A., Van Ooyen-Houben, M., Croes, E., Meijer, R. et al. (2011). The Netherlands drug situation 2010: report to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point. Utrecht: Trimbos Institute, Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction.
Van Laar, M.W., Cruts, A.A.N., Van Ooyen-Houben, M.M.J., Meijer, R.F., Croes E.A., Brunt, T., Ketelaars, A.P.M. (2011). National Drug Monitor 2010. Utrecht: Trimbos Institute.
More information: Margriet van Laar