Drug use in Europe: which are the most popular drugs?

How has drug use in Europe changed? Which are the most popular drugs and what is the 'legal highs' phenomenon?

Find which drugs are most widespread by country

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An estimated 15.5m Europeans have used cocaine at least once in their life according to the latest results from an annual drugs report.

Published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) the report found cocaine, over the past 10 years, to have become the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe.

Survey findings also showed that more than one new legal high goes on sale every week. Alan Travis writes today:

A record 57 new legal highs have been detected so far this year, with the EU's early warning system reporting the appearance of more than one new psychoactive drug on the market every week.

The rise and rise of legal highs is being driven by an explosion in the number of online retailers selling the new drugs in Europe, which has risen from 170 in 2010 to a record 693 internet "head shops" identified in a snapshot earlier this year.

So which drugs are most prevalent in Europe? And who uses what?


Cocaine remains the second most commonly used illicit drug in Europe overall according to the latest EMCDDA report and the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe. Prevalence differs by country with the latest results showing high levels of cocaine use only in a small number of mostly western European countries.

Approximately 4m Europeans are estimated to have used cocaine in the last year with Ireland, Spain, Italy and the UK all reporting higher levels above the European average. In those countries last year prevalence data showed cocaine to be the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug.


The most widely available illicit drug in Europe, it is estimated that cannabis has been used by around 80.5m Europeans at least once in their life - that means almost one in four 15-64 year-olds.

Cannabis is largely used by young people. The highest prevalence of cannabis use within the last year was found among 15-24 year-olds. The report also found cannabis use to be higher among males. The data is also broken down by country; the ratio of males to females using cannabis in the last year was just over six to one in Portugal.

The European average lifetime and last year use of cannabis stands at 32.5% and 12.4% respectively. Australia, Canada and the US all recorded higher than average rates.

Amphetamines and ecstasy

The EMCDDA report finds amphetamines or ecstasy to be the most commonly used illicit substance after cannabis in many European countries. About 13m Europeans have tried amphetamines with about 2m having used the drug within the last year. The findings also show higher levels of last year use among young people linked with dance-music or nightlife settings.

Of the 15-34 age group, the highest prevalence of amphetamine use in the last year is found in Estonia (2.5%) followed by Bulgaria (2.1%)

The highest prevalence of ecstasy use in the last year within the 15-34 age group was found in the Netherlands (3.1%) followed by the UK (3%).

New drugs and 'legal highs'

164 new psychoactive substances were detected through the EU's early warning system between 2005 and 2011. The EMCDDA report states that the increase in the number of substances notified "is occuring in the context of a continually developing 'legal high' phenomenon."

The rise of 'legal highs' has been driven an increase in the number of online retailers providing them. The table above shows the 'legal highs' most commonly offered for sale in online shops (surveyed in 2011 and 2012).

Natural products kratom, salvia and hallucinogenic mushrooms are the 'legal highs' most frequently offered online. These are followed by synthetic substances such as Methoxetamine, MDAI and 6-APB.

Data on drug use by country can be found in our downloadable spreadsheet. Countries that reported data for at least four years since 2000 are only included. For example, even though Estonia recorded the highest prevalence of amphetamine use in the last year it does not feature in the spreadsheet as it had less than four years of data since 2000. The full data can be found in the EMCDDA statical bulletin.

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