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Illicit drugs form an important sector of the world economy. A recent report of the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) stated that many estimations have been made of the total revenue of the illicit drug industry, most ranging from $300 billion to $500 billion (INCB 1997). According to this UN report ‘a growing body of evidence’ suggests that the true figure lies around $400 billion. The report further states this turnover would be equivalent to approximately 8% of total international trade. In 1994 this figure would have been larger than the international trade in iron and steel, and motor vehicles, and about the same size as the total international trade in textiles. Of course, the important economic value of drugs can be largely attributed to the simple fact they are illegal.

This article aims to give an overview of some general trends in drug use and drug trafficking in Europe. This overview will not discuss all illicit drugs in detail, but will focus on two drugs, cannabis and heroin. The reasons for this are as follows. Speaking about the use of illicit substances, cannabis is by and large the one that is most used in Europe. Heroin, on the other hand, is used by very few people – in drug use surveys the prevalence of heroin is usually among the lowest – but it is the drug that is most associated with marginalisation and drug addiction. This also explains why the use of this drug is more visible than the use of other drugs. The second reason for concentrating on cannabis and heroin is that the trade in these drugs is most interesting from a geopolitical point of view.