New Drugs, New Markets: United Nations Releases World Drug Report

By Dirk Hanson 06/23/11

UN drug report says amphetamines have eclipsed heroin and cocaine as world’s 2nd most popular illegal drug.

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Amphetamine-style drug use is climbing.
Photo via UNODC

The global drug picture is changing. The state of the world drug market as analyzed in the 2011 World Drug Report, released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, shows that opium production in Afghanistan is declining, as is coca production in the Andean countries of South America. Marijuana remains the most popular illicit drug in the world, but amphetamine-type drugs now make up the second most commonly abused drug class worldwide, eclipsing both heroin and cocaine.

“Globally, UNODC estimates that between 155 and 250 million people (3.5 to 5.7% of the population aged 15-64) used illicit substances at least once in 2008,” according to the just-released report. Cannabis users comprise the largest number of illicit drug users (129—190 million people). “Amphetamine-group substances rank as the second most commonly used drug, followed by cocaine and opiates.” Drug use has essentially stabilized in the developed West, with new markets opening in developing countries for methamphetamine-style designer stimulants, and prescription painkillers. The report concentrated on the markets for heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS).

Back in 1998, the UN General Assembly decided to work towards the “elimination or significant reduction” of illicit drug production and abuse by 2008. Okay, that didn’t work out so well, so the General Assembly adopted another 10-year plan, vowing that overall drug supply and demand be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019.

So how are we doing? Learning lessons, is how we’re doing. Do begin with, one major obstacle to success on a world scale is that “countries with limited means cannot resist, and counter the impact of, powerful trans-national trafficking flows on their own.”

The global area under opium poppy cultivation declined by 15% in 2009, and coca cultivation was down 5%. Global cocaine production fell 4% in 2009, but was down 16% from 2007 to 2008. And that’s about it for short-term good news. The report estimates that there were between 16 and 38 million problem drug users in the world in 2008. This represents 10% to 15% of all people who used drugs that year—a figure that matches up well with common estimates by addiction experts.

As for the treatment picture: “In Europe and Asia, most of the treatment demand is for opiates. In the Americas, it is cocaine, and in Africa and Oceania, it is cannabis. These ratios have changed over time. As compared to a decade ago, treatments related to cannabis have increased in Europe, South America, and Oceania, suggesting that an increased proportion of cannabis use can become problematic. Over the same period of time, cocaine treatment demand has been declining in the Americas, especially in North America, while it has increased in Europe.” The report also notes that treatment for amphetamine-style drugs is on the rise everywhere.

Now we can see why the Drug Czar’s office recently made such a big deal out of the modest drop in cocaine supply lately: There just isn’t much good news to sing about, either here or abroad.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]

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