Methamphetamine in Ermelo sewage remarkable for the Netherlands

Amphetamine and methamphetamine loads demonstrably a result of drug use

Commissioned by the municipal council of the town of Ermelo, KWR researched the presence of narcotics in the municipality’s sewer water. As in the case of earlier research, the drugs looked for were: amphetamine (speed), methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine and cannabis. The research results show that the average consumption of cocaine and MDMA in Ermelo is comparable to that in other small municipalities in the Netherlands. In contrast, Ermelo’s average consumption of amphetamine far surpassed that of comparable towns.

A small methamphetamine load was also detected in Ermelo’s sewer water. This is remarkable, since it’s the first time that this narcotic has ever been found in a Dutch town of such size. However, compared to the loads measured elsewhere in Europe – particularly in cities in Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – the methamphetamine loads found in Ermelo are very small; in fact, they’re smaller by a factor of 100-200.

Loads originate in use

KWR found no indication in the Ermelo samples of the dumping of either amphetamine or methamphetamine production waste. In other words, the loads in both instances originate in the drugs’ consumption. Since the researchers calculate the concentrations in terms of loads per 1000 inhabitants, one can compare the results of different municipalities in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.

KWR has been conducting research on the presence of drugs in sewer water since 2010. During the course of this work KWR’s researchers regularly came across direct discharges of drugs. They therefore developed methods that allow them to distinguish drug residues resulting from human consumption from direct discharges. The researchers always look at three points, as they did in Ermelo:

  1. Do the weekly patterns show a sudden increase that deviates from normal weekly patterns? This was not the case in Ermelo.
  2. What is the acidity level of the samples? Synthetic drug production waste often consists of strong acids, which is reflected in low acidity, or of bases, which is reflected in high acidity. We did not detect any deviations in acidity levels.
  3. On the basis of specific chemical markers (which are typical precursor or intermediate products), one can determine whether waste from a specific stage in the production of synthetic drugs has been discharged. These markers produce a chemical ‘fingerprint’ in the sewer water. We did not encounter any marker which would point to waste resulting from the production of amphetamine or methamphetamine.

The use of methamphetamine is not really popular in the Netherlands when compared to the rest of Europe. But concrete indications of its use have been found. Head researcher, Pim de Voogt, notes that ‘KWR has detected methamphetamine in Amsterdam’s sewer water since 2011. According to research done by the Bonger Institute of Criminology of the University of Amsterdam, on a commission from the Jellinek Prevention Institute (‘Antenne Monitor 2016’), the use of methamphetamine by partyers has grown. The KWR numbers corroborate the Bonger Institute’s conclusion (see Figure 1).

The Antenne Monitor 2016 shows that the price of methamphetamine is relatively high (100-150 euros per gram), but that there are signs that cheaper methamphetamine has appeared on the market. For instance, the street price in the Czech Republic – among others in the Asiatic bazars on the German border – is about 50 euros per gram. ‘Compared with the methamphetamine loads measured in Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia,’ says researcher Eric Emke, ‘those found in the Netherlands – and thus also in Ermelo – are lower by a factor of 100-200 (13 mg/per 100 inhabitants, compared to 180-240 mg/1000 inhabitants recorded in Europe’s top 5 in 2017.)’

Drug-use map of the Netherlands

‘At KWR we feel that the decision by the municipal council of Ermelo to commission quantitative research into drugs in its sewer water testifies to their courage,’ says De Voogt. ‘Since only around twenty (small) municipalities in the whole of the Netherlands have so far had such research conducted, the municipal authorities concerned always find themselves placed in a negative national spotlight. Generally speaking however, the results from the municipalities that have been studied are similar – with the described outliers of course – and we expect that drug use in other municipalities in the country will be comparable, whether large cities (like Amsterdam, Utrecht or Eindhoven) or small towns (like Ermelo) are concerned.

‘Actually, we’re waiting for a request by the Association of Netherlands Municipalities or by the five ministries concerned (Justice and Security; Health, Welfare and Sport; Infrastructure and Water Management; Economic Affairs and Climate Policy; and Foreign Affairs) to draw up a map of drug use in the entire country. This would no longer make in necessary to refer to an individual municipality, and town councils would be able to learn from each other and develop a joint prevention policy. The policy could be tested and if necessary adjusted through the periodic updating of the drug-use map.’

Figure 1: Methamphetamine loads between 2011 and 2017.