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.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.