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Europe’s €11.4bn Illicit Cannabis Market: Potency Surge, Semi-Synthetics & Staggering Environmental Impacts

Last week the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) launched its comprehensive report on the EU’s illicit cannabis market.

The report, based on the latest data from the EMCDDA and its co-author Europol, lays bare the scope of the €11.4bn illicit cannabis market, which is thought to have served 22.6m Europeans over the past year.

Although the size of the market ‘remains stable’, the report raises a number of key concerns, including the sharp rise in THC potency, the rapid emergence of semi-synthetic cannabinoids such as HHC, and the surprising environmental implications of Europe’s illicit cannabis cultivation industry.

“All of these developments are taking place while there is an ongoing policy debate in Europe, and globally, which is impacting licit and illicit markets leading to challenges for law enforcement and criminal justice systems,” the EMCDDA’s head of markets, crime and supply, Andrew Cunningham, said in the report’s launch webinar.

Spain, Morocco and the Western Balkans 

With an estimated 22.6m users in the last year, cannabis is the most commonly consumed illicit substance in Europe by some margin, eclipsing cocaine, the next most commonly used illicit substance, six-fold.

Herbal cannabis, or cannabis flower, represents over three quarters (77%) of the total market value (at least €8.8bn), while cannabis resin accounts for the other 23%, estimated to be around 362 tonnes.

The quantity of herbal cannabis seized in the EU, Norway and Turkey hit all-time records in 2021, topping 288 tonnes. According to the 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 represented around 51% of the total herbal cannabis seized in the EU, around 130 tonnes, while Italy (47 tonnes) and France (nearly 40 tonnes) together represented another third of the total.

These figures were overshadowed by the record 850 tonnes of cannabis resin seized in 2021 in the EU, Norway and Turkey, with Spain once again representing the majority of seizures, some 82%.

Credit: EMCDDA

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

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

When it comes to herbal cannabis, however, while the report suggests the vast majority is grown within the EU, the Western Balkan region continues to be an important location in the supply of herbal cannabis to the EU.

This is beginning to change, though, with efforts in Albania to tackle the issue reportedly leading to a decrease in seizures since 2018.

“As part of these changes, to be closer to the main consumer market, some of the Western Balkan criminal networks have adapted a new business model, seeing them get involved in cannabis cultivation and trafficking inside the EU.”

Notably, after North Macedonia legalised cannabis production for medical use in 2016, ‘large quantities’ of legally grown product are being diverted to the illicit market, a trend also seen in Albania.

While the Americas, West Africa and Southeast Asia are no longer considered major sources of illicit cannabis imports, there has been an ‘increase in the frequency of herbal cannabis traffic from Canada and the US recently’.

Semi-synthetic cannabinoids

Another key issue raised in the report is the increasing range of different consumer cannabis products stretching far beyond the ‘old hash plus weed model’, with vapes, edibles, oils and extracts now readily available to consumers across Europe.

This is true not only in product diversity, but also in potency, with data suggesting that the THC content in cannabis has increased by 57% in herbal cannabis over the last decade, and nearly 200% in resin, likely due to improvements in genetics and extraction techniques.

Cannabis has also become more affordable, with data taking into account the costs ‘corrected for purity or potency in the context of the living standards of a given country’ suggesting ‘your money goes 25% further than it used to’.

A concerning and rapidly evolving part of this market diversification is the rise of semi-synthetic cannabinoids, which the EMCDDA suggests are ‘mostly made from CBD’.

Credit: EMCDDA


Substances such as HHC, Delta 8 and Delta 10 THC occur naturally in the cannabis plant in small quantities, the EMCDDA explained, but producers are now commonly converting non-psychoactive CBD into these psychoactive substances in labs.

“CBD has now become a precursor,” Laurent Laniel, the EMCDDA’s principal scientific analyst, told the webinar.

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

The danger, he added, is that these substances are new and we do not yet have the data to establish if they are safe to consume.

The environmental impact of illicit cannabis production

While the EMCDDA stipulated that its data around cannabis production sites in the EU is ‘incomplete’, it suggested that some 7,000 illicit cultivation sites were dismantled in 2019 across 14 member states. In 2020 and 2021, these figures rose to 10,000 and 9,000 respectively.

The number of cannabis plants seized, a ‘key indicator’ used to determine the scale of the illicit market, hit 4.3m in 2021, with around 3.2m of these coming from Spain, representing a nearly twofold increase on 2020.

Notably, in Turkey, the number of cannabis plants seized in 2021 was 18 times higher than in the entire EU put together, topping 76m.

The scale of this market is thought to be having a significant environmental impact, given the high water and energy demands of cultivating large amounts of cannabis, while the available data is also improving due to the increasing number of regulated markets across the EU.

Indoor cultivation of 1 kg of herbal cannabis requires around 6,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, which equates to around 1,400 kg of carbon footprint.

To put this into perspective, a Dutch electricity network provider suggested that the electricity stolen for cannabis production in 2021 was around 1bn kilowatt hours. This is the equivalent of the annual household electricity for a city the size of Rotterdam.

A second major environmental impact is water usage. If grown outdoors, one cannabis plant requires around 19–21 litres of water every day, and the average growing cycle is roughly 150 days.

The EMCDDA offered a real-world example of a dismantled cultivation operation in Spain that contained 400,000 plants. Taking these figures into account, one harvest cycle would require around 1.8bn litres of water, the equivalent of the daily water consumption of a country the size of Latvia.

Despite this, the carbon footprint of indoor cannabis cultivation is estimated to be around 60 to 100 times larger than outdoor cultivation. To illustrate this, to match the carbon footprint of a single joint’s worth of cannabis (0.3 g) grown outdoors, you’d have to drive just 70 metres in a hybrid electric vehicle. For indoor-grown cannabis, this jumps to 4.6 km.

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