Sewer water analysis unlocks some hidden patterns.

If you want to find out which drugs European city-dwellers are consuming, look in the sewers. That’s the premise of a study released this week by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which uses wastewater analysis to create a continent-wide map of drug use.

This method of testing may seem somewhat nauseating—it’s essentially a form of city-wide urine analysis—but the speed of this method enables drug agencies to get a far more up-to-date picture than perhaps anything else. The broadest of its kind yet (having expanded this year to cover 60 cities), the EMCDDA’s report is so far the only pan-European study whose results were released in the same year as the survey was initiated. The results reveal some significant trends for four drugs—cocaine, amphetamine, MDMA and methamphetamine. These are the three most significant:

Methamphetamine Use Is Spreading

Methamphetamine use, 2016. EMCDDA

The map above, which you can navigate interactively here, confirms what many people learned from the TV series Breaking Bad. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are indeed the European heartland for methamphetamine, aka crystal meth. Its prevalence there is partly due to the countries’ long history as a source of production. It’s not just that the territory’s chemical industries provided the necessary precursors in abundance for illicit production. Official manufacture also continued as a stimulant for soldiers on active duty, after it had been largely discontinued elsewhere after World War II.

As the map above shows, the drug is now spreading, notably to eastern Germany and Finland. Beyond the three Czech and Slovak cities in the centre of the map (Bratislava, České Budějovice and Piešťany) the largest circle belongs to Dresden. This is not great surprise given Dresden’s close proximity to the Czech border. But what could explain the new constellation of cities showing evidence of meth use in Finland, a country absent from the meth map as recently as 2013? EMCDDA analysts themselves are wary of providing simplistic answers, but suggested in conversation with CityLab that one possible answer is that this is not necessarily a case of users consciously switching to a new drug. Dealers may have switched the substances they sell without necessarily alerting users to the fact that what they are buying is anything more than a standard amphetamine.

Another detail in EMCDDA’s meth maps provides cause for serious concern: While use of other drugs seems to peak overwhelmingly at the weekend, methamphetamine use seems to be far more spread out across the week. This could link it to what EMCDDA analyst Liesbeth Vandam calls “specifically problematic use.” Users can’t or don’t want to limit their use to a weekly recreational window; instead, many are using it constantly.

MDMA Bounces Back

Traces of MDMA in wastewater, 2011. EMCDDA

MDMA all but disappeared from Europe around 2009, thanks to a combination of stringent anti-drug law enforcement and a lack of the necessary chemical precursors for it production. Looking at the map above from 2011 only Amsterdam and London reveal evidence of any substantial use. Now, it’s a different story.

Traces of MDMA in wastewater, 2016. EMCDDA

Looking at 2016’s map, it’s clear that MDMA is back with a vengeance. Evidence of high level use is now spread across Central Europe, Scandinavia and Iberia. The possible reasons why are outlined in another EMCDDA study published in April, which suggested the resurgence is a reflection of both increased production and more aggressive marketing by dealers. European production, focused on Belgium and the Netherlands, has increased, as has the purity of the drugs produced in labs run by criminal networks. Dealers, meanwhile may have boosted demand by marketing tablets with a greater variety of names and shapes, often presented as possessing different psychoactive properties. As many as 174 different Dutch designs for MDMA tablets were identified in 2014, a huge rise on the 50 designs discovered in 2012.

Cocaine Stays in the West, Amphetamines in the North

Evidence of cocaine use, 2016. EMCDDA

As the map above reveals, European cities with apparently high levels of cocaine use have something in common. Almost without exception they’re on  the continent’s western half. The one major exception is Cyprus which, beyond being on major sea routes, also receives large numbers of tourists from Western Europe.

Evidence of amphetamine use, 2016. EMCDDA

By contrast, Europe’s users of amphetamine (commonly known as speed) are mostly located away from the Mediterranean, clustered in Scandinavia, Central Europe, Germany and the Low Countries. This drug divide, it seems, is part cultural and part caused by the logistics of smuggling.

“Historically, there has been a geographically divided stimulant market, with preferences for different substances in different countries,” EMCDDA’s Liesbeth Vandam tells CityLab. “This has been a stable feature across a number of years, and is borne out by seizure data as well. Another explanation is the trafficking routes and points of entry in Europe for cocaine, which tend to be in the south and west.”

While the study’s findings are interesting, they are by necessity limited. Analysing sewage cannot, for example, provide figures for the number of drug users or the frequency of their use. Wastewater analysis is also a relatively new discipline and cannot pick up on all drug residues. Heroin, for example, remains untraceable because, once metabolised in the human body, its traces resemble those of various legal medicines.

Wastewater analysis can nonetheless be carried out quickly enough to map changes from week to week in a way that makes it possible for agencies to respond faster. If the EMCDDA gathered its data through user surveys, records of drug busts and medical outreach services alone, it could have taken some years to realise, for example, that Finland is experiencing a meth boom. This ability to respond quickly means that next year's maps may look very different indeed.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of a cyclist on the streets of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

    Can Historic Preservation Cool Down a Hot Neighborhood?

    The new plan to landmark Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood aims to protect more than just buildings: It’s designed to curb gentrification.

  2. Rows of machinery with long blue tubes and pipes seen at a water desalination plant.

    A Water-Stressed World Turns to Desalination

    Desalination is increasingly being used to provide drinking water around the globe. But it remains expensive and creates its own environmental problems.

  3. A cat lays flat on a bench at a park on the outskirts of Tokyo.

    Why Don't Americans Use Their Parks at Night?

    Most cities aren’t fond of letting people use parks after dark. But there are good lifestyle, environmental, and safety reasons to reconsider.

  4. Brick apartment buildings in Stuyvesant Town, New York City

    No Wonder Big Real Estate Is Fighting New York's New Rent Law

    Previously unreleased data shows that large landlords who own multiple buildings have a stranglehold over housing—and evictions—in New York City.

  5. a photo of a highway

    Americans Are Spending Billions on Bad Highway Expansions

    PIRG’s annual list of “highway boondoggles” includes nine transportation projects that will cost a total of $25 billion while driving up emissions.