300m drug users world-wide by ‘end of century’

Opium production in Afghanistan has ‘rebounded’ to its previously high levels, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2012 world drug report. Despite this, opiate use in Europe and North America appears to be declining, says the report, although this is ‘offset’ by the continued rise in synthetic drug production.

UNODC estimates that around 230m people used an illicit drug in 2010, with the number of illicit drug users worldwide likely to increase by another 65m by 2050 – driven largely by population growth and increasing urbanisation in the developing world – and potentially reaching 300m by the end of the century. Overall, global patterns of use and health consequences have largely remained stable, says the document, which estimates that problem drug users – primarily those dependent on heroin or cocaine – number around 27m worldwide, approximately 0.6 per cent of the world’s population. However, clear data for Africa and Asia – which jointly account for around 70 per cent of opiate users – is hard to come by, raising the possibility of ‘increasing but undetected’ use. The report estimates that there were between 99,000 and 253,000 drug-related deaths in 2010, including overdose, blood-borne viruses and suicide.

Afghan opium production in 2010 was severely affected by plant disease, which wiped out almost half of crop yields and led to high prices, while the total world area under cocoa bush cultivation fell by 18 per cent in the three years to 2010, mainly as a result of declining production in Colombia, which primarily supplies the US. European cocaine comes mainly from Bolivia and Peru.

Cannabis remains the world’s most widely used illegal drug, with between 119m and 224m estimated users worldwide, although in some countries, cannabis aside, there is more non-medical use of prescription pharmaceuticals than of controlled substances. A shortage of heroin in some countries has also led to more use of dangerous codeine-based substitutes such as home-made desomorphine, or ‘krokodil’, which can pose ‘serious health problems even with limited use’.

‘Heroin, cocaine and other drugs continue to kill around 200,000 people a year, shattering families and bringing misery to thousands of other people, insecurity and the spread of HIV,’ said UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov. ‘The public health aspects of prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and reintegration all have to be recognised as key elements in the global strategy to reduce drug demand.’

Despite ‘unintended consequences’ such as the growth of an organised crime-dominated black market, the drug control system ‘appears to have had the desirable long-term effect of containing the expansion of the drug problem and of limiting the spread of illicit drug use and addiction,’ says the report.

The Alternative world drug report, however, launched to coincide with UNODC’s document by collaborative project Count the Costs – whose supporter organisations include INPUD, Release, UKHRA and Transform – states that it is ‘unacceptable that neither the UN or its member governments’ have ‘meaningfully assessed’ the unintended consequences of an enforcement-based approach, which also include diversion of funding from health and stigmatisation of drug users.

A new report from Harm Reduction International (HRI), meanwhile, states that millions of dollars in international funding for drug enforcement is going to countries with ‘extremely poor’ human rights records that are not being held accountable for activities like arbitrary detention, forced labour and executions.

Partners in crime, which tracks enforcement funding from donor states – often via UNODC – found that countries opposed to the death penalty, including the UK, Germany and France, have funded a UNODC border control project and helped to boost intelligence-led investigations in Iran, which executed more than 1,000 people for drug offences between 2010 and 2011 – more than three the times the number in the previous two years. The report also describes funding projects for detention centres in south east Asia where inmates can be confined for years, often without trial, as well as abused and forced to work for private companies.

‘In some cases donor states have effectively paid for the capture of their own citizens only for them to be later sentenced to death,’ said co-author and HRI deputy director Damon Barrett. ‘There are no safeguards – when the UN acts as a conduit for these funds, a further layer of bureaucracy separates the money from the abuses. Instead of the UN being a guardian of human rights it becomes more like a laundry mechanism, washing the funds of any form of accountability.’


2012 world drug report at www.unodc.org

The alternative world drug report: counting the costs of the war on drugs at www.countthecosts.org

Partners in crime – international funding for drug control and gross violations of human rights at www.ihra.net