Amphetamine-type stimulants and prescription medications are increasingly becoming the drugs of choice globally, according to a new United Nations report, which also notes that drug use has stabilized in developed nations while it seems to be rising in the developing world.
The World Drug Report 2010, launched today by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says that the number of users of synthetic drugs – estimated at around 30 to 40 million people worldwide – will soon exceed the number of users of opiates and cocaine combined.
“We will not solve the world drugs problem if we simply push addiction from cocaine and heroin to other addictive substances – and there are unlimited amounts of them, produced in mafia labs at trivial costs,” warned UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa.
The agency noted in a news release that the market for amphetamine-type stimulants is harder to track because of short trafficking routes, and the fact that many of the raw materials are both legal and readily available. Manufacturers are quick to market new products, such as ketamine and mephedrone, and exploit new markets.
“These new drugs cause a double problem,” noted Mr. Costa. “First, they are being developed at a much faster rate than regulatory norms and law enforcement can keep up. Second, their marketing is cunningly clever, as they are custom-manufactured so as to meet the specific preference in each situation.”
The report also shows that cannabis remains the world's most widely produced and used illicit substance – grown in almost all countries, and smoked by 130 to 190 million people at least once a year.
It adds that the fact that cannabis use is declining in some of its highest value markets, namely North America and parts of Europe, is another indication of shifting patterns of drug abuse.
Mr. Costa cited the boom in heroin consumption in Eastern Africa, the rise of cocaine in West Africa and South America, and the surge in the production and abuse of synthetic drugs in the Middle East and South-East Asia.
Highlighting the dangers of drug use in the developing world, he noted that poor countries are not in a position to absorb the consequences of increased drug use. “The developing world faces a looming crisis that would enslave millions to the misery of drug dependence,” he stated.
He also pointed to a serious lack of drug treatment facilities around the world, adding that, while rich people in wealthy countries can afford treatment, the poor are facing the greatest health risks.
The report estimates that only around a fifth of problem drug users worldwide had received treatment in 2008, which means that some 20 million people did not.
“It is time for universal access to drug treatment,” said Mr. Costa, who also called for health to be the centrepiece of drug control and for greater respect for human rights.
While drug use is shifting to new drugs and new markets, the report says that cultivation is declining in Afghanistan (for opium) and the Andean countries (for coca).
“The global area under opium cultivation has dropped by almost a quarter (23 per cent) in the past two years, and opium production looks set to fall steeply in 2010 due to a blight that could wipe out a quarter of Afghanistan's poppy crop,” says UNODC. “Coca cultivation, down by 28 per cent in the past decade, has kept declining in 2009.”
The report, launched today in Washington D.C. by Mr. Costa, also contains a chapter on the destabilizing influence of drug trafficking on transit countries, focusing in particular on the case of cocaine.
It says that Venezuela has emerged as a major departure point for cocaine trafficked to Europe: between 2006 and 2008, over half of all detected maritime shipments of cocaine to Europe came from Venezuela. It also highlights the unstable situation in West Africa, which has become a hub for cocaine trafficking.