Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Polysubstance abuse’ a growing threat in Europe, warns drugs agency chief

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European drug users are taking increasingly diverse cocktails of stimulants, painkillers and tranquillisers as “polysubstance abuse” becomes a growing threat to public health, the EU drugs monitoring agency has warned.

The trend spans people who deliberately mix opioids with tranquillisers such as Valium, and those unwittingly consuming dangerous mixtures such as so-called “pink cocaine” and other novel products offered by drugs gangs.

Alexis Goosdeel, director of the Lisbon-based EMCDDA, the EU drugs monitoring agency, said the growing use of two or more substances at the same time, or in sequence, was part of a proliferating drug problem that was spreading “everywhere, everything, everyone”.

“We have never had so many drugs available in Europe,” he told the Financial Times. “We have the biggest ever quantity of drugs arriving . . . and at the same time we have a very high quantity of drugs being produced in Europe.”

Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in the EU: some 22.8mn people — 8 per cent — of those aged 15-64 are estimated to have used it in the past year, according to an EMCDDA report on Tuesday.

Cocaine is the second-most popular, used by around 4mn adults in the EU in the past year. The most commonly used illicit opioid is heroin.

But Goosdeel said the surge in “polysubstance abuse” was marked by the prevalence of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl — the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths and an unprecedented crisis in the US — and tranquillisers such as Valium and Xanax.

“You have people who combine different substances to [increase] some of their effects or to reduce them,” Goosdeel said. “But clearly, polydrug consumption, especially for new psychoactive substances, is increasing the risk of intoxication because there is a possible negative interaction between those substances.”

The agency said opioids were found in 74 per cent of fatal overdoses. Goosdeel added that post mortems often revealed the presence of tranquillisers too.

Next month his 30-year old organisation is set to be renamed the European Union Drugs Agency and gain a broader mandate, to monitor drug use, anticipate new threats and develop prevention and treatment measures.

Polysubstance abuse has a long history, including the use of cocaine with alcohol. Goosdeel noted that in the 1990s some drug users who had taken MDMA, or ecstasy, used heroin to alleviate the subsequent come down.

The agency also warned some people were unknowingly consuming substances that contained a mixture of drugs producers and dealers had deliberately misrepresented.

“Pink cocaine”, a brightly coloured powder with a longer history in Latin America, has been found in Europe to contain ketamine and ecstasy. The agency is also tracking “tranq-dope”, which mixes synthetic opioids and an animal sedative called xylazine, which has been found in the UK’s illicit drug market.

On heroin, the agency said it had not seen evidence of any disruption to flows of the drug into the EU despite the Taliban banning opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the main producing country, in 2022.

Goosdeel said satellite imagery indicated that 95-98 per cent of opium production in Afghanistan had stopped, but that the stockpiling of heroin along trafficking routes to Europe meant there had not yet been any impact on supplies.

“But certainly this is something we need to continue to monitor,” he said. “There will probably be a drought of heroin on the European market, and therefore users may shift their consumption to synthetic drugs.”

In addition to fentanyl, another group of dangerous synthetic opioids known as nitazenes — sometimes sold as “synthetic heroin” — have a growing presence in Europe.

A shift to such drugs “could be potentially very dangerous because those substances are much more potent than heroin”, Goosdeel said.

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