Wrong Bad News

An EU Study on Drugs Was Out of Date Before it Was Even Published

News | Joerg Michner | December 2006 / January 2007

Opium poppies ready for harvest (Photo: Creative Commons)

The last week in November, headlines screamed across European media: Drug prices have plummeted in Europe and access to drugs is easier than ever before, they claimed, following release of the 2006 Annual Report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA,) a Lisbon-based European Union agency.

Depending on the type of drug, the report cited prices dropping between 20% and 50% because of excess supply.

The culprit, according to the report, is apparently Afghanistan. Since US and British forces overthrew the Taliban – who had rigorously burnt down all fields and shut down literally all trade – in 2002, opium growing is booming again and Afghan opium products are flooding the market.

Interviews with over a dozen dealers and users on the Viennese drug scene, however, paint a very different picture, proving perhaps once again that "Wien is Anders" - Vienna is different. Marijuana particularly is in short supply, sending street prices skyrocketing and quality plummeting.

So, why the paradox?

Rewind to June 9, 2006: When Germany kicked off the Soccer World Cup (WM) against Costa Rica, the earth seemed no longer to be circling the sun but a little white ball and as every four years, the broad public focused on world’s most popular sport.

Everyone that is, except for the men and women of the German law enforcement community. Fearing a possible terrorist attack and armies of hooligans entering the country, Germany monitored its borders as never before. Luckily, terrorists seem to have been deterred by the tight patrol and hooligans were identified and denied entry to the country. The mission of keeping Germany safe was accomplished.

The increased security measures at the borders also had another positive effect for the Ministry of the Interior. Not only did the high security measures curtail supply as smuggling became riskier, but German police actually busted scores of smugglers large and small who tried to outsmart the Bundeskriminalamt, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office. Supplies from the Netherlands measuring tons annually of the green leaf  that usually run through Germany into all of Europe were cut off, as were cargo ships from Asia that bring a range of drugs to Europe through the big ports in Hamburg and Rotterdam.

Fast-forward to December 2006: Vienna’s stoners report they are still ‘suffering’ from the German police’s success. Across the board, they say, it is harder than ever to get hold of anything. Even dealers who were known to be well supplied at all times – one of the top priorities in the business – have run dry.

While people with strong ties to ‘their’ dealer still have some hope left of getting whatever it is they want, others who solely rely on the street are becoming desperate.

"Sometimes you have to drive through all of town to get weed," says one consumer. "They send you from one place to the other, but nobody has anything."

The only ones who seem to be benefiting from this situation are those dealers who offer Austrian-grown marijuana, usually looked down upon by those who are used to Dutch quality. But these days, no one is too picky. Many people have even started to grow their own plants at home for personal use.

"Simply buying a gram here and another one there the next time hasn’t worked for a long time now," said another youth. "If we get hold of anything good, we stock it."

Those who don’t have their private channels and have always relied on the supply in the streets are most upset. While law enforcement officers have dealt a blow to the suppliers, demand has not changed at all. So the prices have gone through the roof. On Schottenring, one of Vienna’s main drug centers, prices for marijuana have climbed as high as €15 per gram, compared to € 8-10 before the summer.

And to make matters worse for the buyers, most street dealers stretch their products these days to meet demand: Hairspray, sand, herbs and even tiny pieces of glass are being used to expand quantities, posing serious health threats to consumers. "This problem has persisted in Hannover for almost 6 months," said one member of the www.kiffer.net internet forum. "It tastes like dead dog and has hardly any effect."

Other drugs are less affected: The price for amphetamines – also produced to a large extent in the Netherlands – has recently risen from €8-10 to €10-12 cocaine and heroin have stayed about the same as these products mostly come from either South America through Spain and Italy, or by land route from Afghanistan.

Ecstasy – or simply called ‘E’ – has somewhat of a ‘special’ position: Even though the production of ecstasy is another Dutch stronghold, for years now there has been rising competition from Eastern European laboratories, who are taking advantage of the German blockade. Thus supply has just shifted from one producer to the other, keeping the price level. And for each dealer arrested, there are two more eager to take his place – it is just a matter of time until the word spreads to the buyers.

Internet forums, like www.marihuana.at, are filled with laments. "For a few weeks now nothing is up in Vienna either […] my friends are extremely stressed out to get anything and even our old dealer […] has been saying for a week ‘nope, tomorrow maybe,’" said one forum member. Across Austria, users all tell the same story. The same goes for major German cities like Hamburg or Düsseldorf, where the drug business is usually flourishing.

So how can it be that there is such a huge discrepancy between the EMCDDA’s report and reality? Actually, there is no real discrepancy – only a misinterpretation by the public and many people in the media.

The report only covers data up to 2004, and in a few cases 2005 – figures that, in this case are severely outdated. However, the overall trend of falling prices and rising supply shown in the report for the 1999 – 2004 period may well continue in the longer run, long after the post-World Cup effect has past. So, the report’s warnings should not be ignored.

Still the media might ask themselves if they should have been more careful, and double-checked before running with a sensational headline. Aside from that, the report is based on statistics, like household surveys, drug busts and drug therapies only. And as we all know, these numbers are not always the most reliable source.

As Mark Twain quoted Disraeli "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics."

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