A new front is opening in the war on drugs, with the internet emerging as an option to buy a plethora of hallucinogenics and synthetic drugs, according to the EU's drugs watchdog, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
The availability of everything from magic mushrooms to 'fashionable' synthetic drugs and their "aggressive marketing and intentional mislabelling" are complicating the fight against drug abuse in Europe, warns the Lisbon-based agency in its annual report.
The findings by the EMCDDA show that Europe is also losing the fight against hard drugs. Over five million people in the EU and Norway are believed to have used cocaine and heroine in the past year alone.
With a random search on Google for magic mushroom retailers producing half a million entries, it is little wonder than the agency is concerned. Julian Vincente of the EMCDDA says the internet greatly complicates detection and control as illegal substances are often packaged up as legal products.
"This is an area that's changing very quickly. For instance, there are herbal mixtures containing synthetic cannabis [that is five times more powerful than natural cannabis]. These substances are in a grey legal area, so you can't have the same quality control as with medicines."
According to the study, the synthetic cannabis substitute Spice was offered by nearly half of the 115 online drug retailers surveyed in 2009.
Cracking down on the traffickers themselves is also harder, as the sellers often operate from abroad, says Floor van Bakkum from the Dutch addiction agency, Jellinek Prevention. "So national authorities have to use cross-border crime laws, which is very complicated," she says. But she isn't convinced the online market will take off, pointing to the risks it poses for both sellers and buyers.
"If you buy online, you have to send an email and you have to get it through the post, and most people won't be happy getting illegal substances by mail as they're afraid the government would sniff it out and they'd get into trouble. So I don't think there's a big market for illegal substances online," Ms van Bakkum told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
Ms van Bakkum also says that getting hold of illegal drugs is still hard on the web, with the exception of magic mushrooms.
The online development, though, is part of a bigger trend suggesting that drug traffickers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, says EMCDDA.
"The traffickers are always one step ahead of what we're doing. They have more information, they are working more closely together and they have more global networks," says Wolfgang Goetz, the EU drugs watchdog's director.
"Cocaine and cannabis are now being seized together, meaning that South American traffickers are working together with North African traffickers. So we have to step up our monitoring."
Cocaine and heroin are still very popular in Europe, especially in Western European countries like Spain, Denmark and Britain. "There is little to suggest any improvement regarding cocaine and heroin use in Europe, the two substances that remain at the heart of Europe's drugs problem," the report says.
The trends often reflect the fashionability of a certain drug, rather than its legal status, adds Julian Vincente. Although over 20 million Europeans are thought to have used cannabis in the past year, the drug's popularity has fallen in the Netherlands, where it is legally available in coffee shops.
"Cannabis is less fashionable now. But cocaine is popular, it's available and it's linked to glamour and nightlife."
By Vanessa Mock
November 6, 2009
Radio Netherlands Worldwide