Synthetic Drugs' March to World Domination Continues

By McCarton Ackerman 06/26/13

Cocaine and heroin use is falling in North America, but synthetic drugs are booming worldwide, shows the UN's annual report.

Synthetic drugs try to appeal to youth with
bright packaging and youth-speak labels.

Heroin and cocaine are on the decline in North America, but synthetic drug use is rapidly rising across the globe, according to the 2013 World Drug Report, released today by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The number of new psychoactive substances—marketed as "legal highs" or "designer drugs"—has spiked 50% in the last three years. By mid-2012, there were a reported 251 of these unregulated synthetic drugs on the market. "The international drug control system is floundering, for the first time, under the speed and creativity of the phenomenon," says the report. "[They are] proliferating at an unprecedented rate and posing unforeseen public health challenges." But global drug consumption has remained stable overall, due to a decline in traditional drugs such as heroin and cocaine—in the US and Europe, although use of both continues to rise in South America and Asia. The report also shows that the number of people with HIV who inject drugs has sharply declined to 1.6 million people between the ages of 18 to 65 in 2011—a 46% decrease from three years earlier. These reduced figures are "in large part a result of the availability of more reliable information on HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs," says the report. Less welcome news is that Africa has increasingly become a center for producing and trafficking illicit substances. Seizures of heroin there have risen since 2009—and are up tenfold in East Africa.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.