Brussels - European authorities are seizing record quantities of increasingly pure cocaine, the EU drugs agency said as it also warned of a growing use of synthetic drugs and dealing via smartphones.

The rise in trafficking on social media, darknet markets and cocaine "call centres", where dealers deliver quickly to users who order online, are creating a "potential 'Uberisation'" of the drugs trade, it said Thursday.

There is a "more systematic and organised use of different social networks, messaging apps and communication methods that also use encryption" than in the past, Alexis Goosdeel, head of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), told reporters in Brussels.

"There is a steady increase in the size of the market and sale over the internet and darknet," he said.


A Spanish customs officer checks a package of cocaine that was seized from a vessel in the port of Vigo. Photo: Miguel Riopa / AFP

- Record cocaine seizures -

Not only are there signs that established plant-based drugs like cocaine are increasingly available, but, he said, "synthetic drugs and drug production within Europe are growing in importance".

Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, told the same press conference the "report presents a worrying picture" with the record seizures of illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin.

He also said the EU and its partners had "no time to spare" in tackling "the role of digitalisation in the drug market".

EU member states seized 140 tonnes of cocaine in 2017, the highest level ever recorded, with an average street price of 55 to 82 euros ($62-92) per gram in the EU.

Belgium accounted for the highest proportion of cocaine seizures with 45 tonnes, followed by Spain with 41 tonnes. An increase in trafficking via shipping containers is a "major challenge", it said.

The purity of cocaine at street level reached its highest level in a decade in 2017, while its retail price has remained stable.

The MDMA content of the party drug ecstasy also reached a 10-year high the same year.

Although an international crackdown on chemicals used to produce that synthetic drug disrupted the market in the late 2000s, producers have increasingly been using non-controlled chemicals to manufacture it.


Police authorities across Europe seized a record 140 tonnes of cocaine in 2017. Photo: Miguel Riopa / AFP

- Cannabis most seized drug -

Cannabis accounted for nearly three-quarters of illicit drugs seizures in the EU in 2017. The herbal cannabis or marijuana consumed in Europe is mainly cultivated in Europe, but cannabis resin or hashish tends to be imported from Morocco, and increasingly from conflict-torn Libya.

Almost three-quarters of cannabis resin seized in the EU in 2017 was in Spain whose proximity to north Africa makes it a hub for sending drugs to Europe.

- Turkey a hotspot -

EU-candidate country Turkey is a significant transit country for drugs trafficking between Europe and the Middle East, despite its strict drugs laws.

It seized more MDMA tablets (8.6 million) and more amphetamine (6.6 tonnes) than all the EU member states combined in 2017.

Drug use in the EU


There were also more heroin seizures (129,000) in Turkey than all EU countries combined.

Since 2014, Turkey has participated in the EMCDDA's work and is a full member of the management board though without the right to vote.

-  Boom in synthetic drugs -

Synthetic drugs -- which mimic the effects of natural drugs such as heroin -- have become more common, the report said.

Eleven new synthetic opioids were detected in Europe in 2018, usually in the form of powders, tablets and liquids, it said.


Much of the cannabis resin comes from Morocco -- and most of it is seized in Spain, which is used as a hub to send drugs to the rest of Europe. Photo: Fadel Senna / AFP

With only very small volumes needed to produce many thousands of street doses, these substances are easy to conceal and transport, representing a challenge for law enforcement and customs.

By Lachlan Carmichael and Charlotte Mason

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