UN World Drug Report offers more evidence global drug policy is behind the times

Left Foot Forward's Matt Owen pores over the UN World Drug Report 2011 - and finds that it's not just in Britain that drugs policy is behind the times.

The UNODC – United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – released its flagship ‘World Drug Report’ in New York last week. While doing little to refute the fact that the global prohibition of drugs bolsters a system in which addiction, poverty, destitution, incarceration and squandered police money go hand in hand with vast economic profits for criminal syndicates, the report revealed some interesting trends.

It states:

“Globally, UNODC estimates that, in 2009, between 149 and 272 million people, or 3.3% to 6.1% of the population aged 15-64, used illicit substances at least once in the previous year… About half that number are estimated to have been current drug users, that is, having used illicit drugs at least once during the past month prior to the date of assessment.”

In terms of usage trends for specific drugs, the report found the following:

“Cannabis is by far the most widely used illicit drug type, consumed by between 125 and 203 million people worldwide in 2009.

“This corresponds to an annual prevalence rate of 2.8%-4.5%. In terms of annual prevalence, cannabis is followed by ATS (amphetamine-type stimulants; mainly methamphetamine, amphetamine and ecstasy), opioids (including opium, heroin and prescription opioids) and cocaine.”

However, the most intriguing broad discovery made by the report was probably that of the increasing popularity of both prescription drugs and ‘legal highs’:

“While there are stable or downward trends for heroin and cocaine use in major regions of consumption, this is being offset by increases in the use of synthetic and prescription drugs. Non-medical use of prescription drugs is reportedly a growing health problem in a number of developed and developing countries.

“Moreover, in recent years, several new synthetic compounds have emerged in established illicit drug markets. Many of these substances are marketed as ‘legal highs’ and substitutes for illicit stimulant drugs such as cocaine or ‘ecstasy’.”

Of course, as stated, what the report didn’t do was suggest in any way that drugs are becoming less popular, that the market for them is shrinking, or that global crime syndicates are continuing to enjoy the massive profits reaped by selling them any less.

It valued the global opiate market for 2009 at $68 billion. Needless to say, almost all of this will have funded criminal activity and political corruption, and not a penny will have been taxed.

Moreover, 63 per cent of this opium was found to be produced in Afghanistan, where the Taliban draw more than 90% of their funds from the heroin trade, thereby establishing the ludicrous situation in which America’s ham-fisted global ‘War on Drugscreates exactly the conditions in which the enemy they have been battling for a decade can continue to remain financially stable.

The global cocaine market was found to be even bigger than that of opium, at a total of $85 billion; again, to quote the UNODC report:

“…as with heroin, almost all the profits are reaped by traffickers.”

Meanwhile, drug users – stigmatised and criminalised by societies largely incapable of developing rational drug policies – continue to suffer on a massive scale.

As the report revealed:

“One in five injecting drug users is living with HIV… [and] the prevalence of Hepatitis C among injecting drug users at the global level is estimated at 50%.”

Perhaps most shockingly, it established that:

“…deaths related to or associated with the use of illicit drugs are estimated between 104,000 and 263,000 deaths each year.”

To put it in terms easier to grasp, that’s anywhere between 285 and 720 deaths every day. Or between 12 and 30 deaths every hour. Not as shocking as it initially sounds when you consider that those countries which lead the way in drug production – Afghanistan, Myanmar, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Morocco – are amongst the most corrupt and criminally afflicted in the world, thanks in large part to global policies of drug prohibition.

It is worth bearing in mind that, as stated in the report:

“Lack of information regarding use of illicit drugs… in populous countries such as China and India, as well as in emerging regions of consumption such as Africa, generate uncertainty when estimating the global number of users.”

In other words, considering China and India combined account for more than a third of the world’s entire population, there are actually probably far more people consuming drugs, far more people’s lives being ruined by them, and far more gangsters getting rich off them than this report has found.

Ultimately,the UNODC’s report is well undertaken and highly informative. However, despite being a coldly analytical study with no political or ideological position, it is every bit as convincing as the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s more polemical recent publication on the central fact: in the realm of global drug policy, a change has to come.

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12 Responses to “UN World Drug Report offers more evidence global drug policy is behind the times”

  1. Katy Owen

    UN World Drug Report offers more evidence global drug policy is behind the times: http://bit.ly/kNJwmp writes @Matt0wen

  2. AltGovUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: UN World Drug Report offers more evidence global drug policy is behind the times: http://bit.ly/kNJwmp writes @Matt0wen

  3. mother of damaged son

    anyone thinking of trying illicit drugs please visit a psychiatric ward and see how many mostly young people are suffering from psychotic illnesses – schizophrenia, triggered by a variety of illicit drugs. There is no cure once psychosis takes over. The psychiatrists often give those affected anti-psychotic drugs that very often carry terrible side effects – dribbling, drooling, shaking like a Parkinsons disease sufferer.

    Don’t be tempted to do anything else except not taking illicit drugs and starving these peddlers of evil out of existence.

  4. mr. Sensible

    ‘Mother Of Damaged Son’ this is something which the decriminalization and legalization campaigners continue to miss.

  5. Foxtrot

    mr. Sensible:

    What point are you making? Do you believe that current drug policy is effective in combating the mental illnesses suffered by some users?

  6. Leon Wolfson

    Not at all, mr.Sensible.

    Because people are getting the drugs now, despite the “war on drugs”. The current approach is a miserable failure. Time for a different approach.

  7. Duncan Stott

    RT @leftfootfwd: UN World Drug Report offers more evidence global drug policy is behind the times http://t.co/fEiIN2K << I've commented

  8. Duncan Stott

    I favour drug policy reform, but I also to some extent agree with ‘mother of damaged son’. While prohibition continues, my advice is to stay away from illicit drugs. Demand for drugs causes much of the corruption in producer countries mentioned in the article, and black market drugs have no controls over their strength or purity, so you have no idea what you’re taking. But regardless of what anti-drug messages are sent out by well-meaning people, some in society will always want to take stimulants and hallucinogens. People always have, and people always will. The government’s job should be to minimise the harm inevitably caused by this natural human behaviour.

    Where I disagree with M.O.D.S. is that this is all down to the drugs themselves. All drugs would be much safer and far less socially evil if there was a tightly regulated legal supply available. If drugs were only sold to over 18s, labelled with health warnings, have their strength regulated, and government funded education + health schemes were provided, less sons and daughters will get damaged by drugs.

  9. externalities

    The drugs debate needs to become more grown-up.

    Firstly, everyone needs to recognise that not all ‘drugs’ are the same and that not all patterns of use are the same. Comments to the contrary are not helpful.

    Secondly, we need to accept that drug prohibition carries costs. These are too numerous to list here (some obvious, others less so). The debate needs to be one of assessing whether these costs are worth the supposed benefits.

    The benefit is meant to be that prohibition reduces use, but this is not even certain (e.g. compare cannabis use in the Netherlands and the US). It is assumed that Governments’ “sending out messages” approach is effective and that decriminalisation or legalisation would increase use sufficiently to outweigh any benefits. But the evidence that this is the case is non-existent and the evidence from international experience suggests otherwise (decriminalisation, for example, does not increase use but removes barriers to coming forward for treatment, and reduces the damage that criminal records and sentences do).

    At a time of cuts we need to make sure that money and resources are well directed. A broad assessment of our drugs laws has never been done and this Government must fix that.

  10. mother of damaged son

    My son has lived on severe disability allowance for 14 years – a poor estimate cost to the tax payer approx £145.000 – less the scores of times he has been hospitalized – this does not take into account his housing benefit, my travel to visit him over the years and the nightmare caused by peddlars of evil. I did ring crime-stoppers when I found out who was supplying my vulnerable son, but nothing was done. As far as I know there is no ”alternative police force” to contact. It took 14 yrs for my son to get clean, but the damage is irreverable and so is the drain on the taxpayer to keep up his benefit payments and the expensive medication the NHS took 12 years to give him which ”I’m told is the Rolls Royce medication” – he has to have regular blood tests as Clozopine is linked with an increase in diabetes” – we don’t know where these drugs are concocted. If I knew I would write to them and say ”next time you knock up a batch in your greenhouse, kitchen, laboratory, can you make them safe” ? It makes you cynical when you ”lose” your once fit and well child to a life time disability

  11. Leon Wolfson

    Exactly. Because it’s treated as a criminal issue, addicts don’t have anywhere to turn until they’re damaged. If they knew that by coming forward they’d be sent for treatment, not to jail…

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