“Multi-substance abuse” is a growing threat in Europe, the head of the drugs agency has warned

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European drug users are turning to increasingly diverse cocktails of stimulants, painkillers and sedatives as “polysubstance abuse” becomes a growing threat to public health, the EU’s drug watchdog has warned.

This trend includes people who intentionally mix opioids with sedatives such as Valium, and people unknowingly consuming dangerous mixtures such as so-called “pink cocaine” and other innovative products offered by drug gangs.

Alexis Goosdeel, director of the Lisbon-based EMCDDA, the EU’s drug monitoring agency, said the rising use of two or more substances simultaneously or in sequence is part of a growing drug problem that is spreading “everywhere, everything, everyone.”

“We have never had so much availability of medicines in Europe,” he told the Financial Times. “We have the largest amount of drugs in history. . . and at the same time, a very large amount of drugs are produced in Europe.”

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the EU: according to Tuesday’s EMCDDA report, an estimated 22.8 million people, or 8 percent, of people aged 15-64 used it last year.

In second place is cocaine, which was used by around 4 million adults in the EU last year. The most commonly used illicit opioid is heroin.

But Goosdeel said the surge in “polysubstance abuse” is characterized by the spread of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl – causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and an unprecedented crisis in the U.S. – and sedatives such as Valium and Xanax.

“There are people who combine different substances to (increase) some of their effects or reduce them,” Goosdeel said. “But clearly, polydrug use, especially new psychoactive substances, increases the risk of poisoning because there is the possibility of a negative interaction between these substances.”

The agency reported that opioids were detected in 74 percent of fatal overdoses. Goosdeel added that autopsies also often reveal the presence of sedatives.

Next month, his 30-year-old organization will be renamed the European Union Drugs Agency and will be given a broader mandate to monitor drug use, anticipate new threats and develop preventive and treatment measures.

Polysubstance abuse has a long history, including combining cocaine with alcohol. Goosdeel noted that in the 1990s, some drug users who took MDMA, or ecstasy, took heroin to relieve later symptoms of depression.

The agency also warned that some people were unknowingly taking substances containing a mixture of drugs that manufacturers and dealers intentionally misled.

In Europe, “pink cocaine,” a brightly colored powder with a longer history in Latin America, has been found to contain ketamine and ecstasy. The agency is also monitoring “tranq-dope”, a mixture of synthetic opioids and an animal tranquilizer called xylazine, which has been found on the UK illicit drug market.

In the case of heroin, the agency said it found no evidence of any disruption to the flow of the drug into the EU despite the Taliban’s 2022 ban on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the main producing country of the drug.

Goosdeel said satellite imagery shows that 95-98 percent of opium production in Afghanistan has stopped, but the buildup of heroin on smuggling routes to Europe means this has not yet had any impact on supplies.

“But it’s certainly something we need to continue to monitor,” he said. “There will likely be a heroin drought in the European market and users may therefore switch to synthetic drugs.”

In addition to fentanyl, another group of dangerous synthetic opioids known as nitazenes – sometimes sold as ‘synthetic heroin’ – are increasingly present in Europe.

Switching to such drugs “could potentially be very dangerous because these substances are much stronger than heroin,” Goosdeel said.