EU Monitoring Agency Releases Report on Cannabis, Calls for Increased Surveillance

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On Tuesday, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), a decentralized agency tasked with providing policymakers with “the data they need for drawing up informed drug laws and strategies,” released a report pointing to an increasingly diverse and potent array of cannabis products in the region. In response, officials call for increased vigilance among those entrusted with overseeing public health. 

According to the report, cannabis is “by far the most widely used illicit drug in the European Union, accounting for 38% of all money spent on the illicit drug retail market.” The two most-widely used cannabis products in Europe, it adds, are “herbal cannabis (marijuana)” and “cannabis resin (hashish),” which are commonly “smoked in joints (rolled cigarettes) containing tobacco.” 

The potency (THC concentration) and price of cannabis, the report adds, are also on the rise. Between 2006 and 2016, the estimated mean potency of “herbal cannabis” doubled from 5% to 10% THC, and “cannabis resin” potency jumped from 8% to 17% THC. Meanwhile, the price of “herbal cannabis” has also increased, from an estimated €7 to €12 per gram in the same time period. “This upwards trend,” the report underscores, “was still evident after adjusting for inflation.”

The report also touches on shifting consumer trends, particularly in relation to their source of origin. Imported “herbal cannabis” containing loose plant material (flowers, stems, and seeds) typically enter the European Union through the Balkans and Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, “herbal cannabis” produced under controlled conditions, in which “female plants are almost exclusively cultivated in the absence of male plants,” are typically grown indoors within the European Union and “appears to be the most common type of herbal cannabis.” According to the report, the increase in the potency of “herbal cannabis” is partly attributable to an increased market share of this latter type of cannabis.

When discussing new cannabis products in the European market, the EMCDDA focuses on four areas: concentrates, edibles, synthetic cannabinoids, and “cannabis-based medicinal and health-orientated products.” According to the report, advances in extraction techniques are yielding concentrates with potencies as high as 70%–80% THC, which “pose a greater risk of psychosis and dependence.” Information on the consumption of edibles in Europe is limited. However, the report signals that, though “there has been a recent increase in the availability of cannabis-based products that contain less than 0.2- 0.3 % THC,” largely based on the argument that they are “of such low potency that they do not fall under existing drug control regulations.” 

In announcing the report, EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel said that the diversification of cannabis products has generated “considerable challenges” and warned that the new, more potent cannabis products “may have serious public health consequences for users.” In light of these developments, the agency insists on developing monitoring tools to capture information on the products and their health effects.

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