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Shift in Illicit Drug Use Bodes Ill for Developing World
email this pageprint this pageemail usMatthew O. Berger - Inter Press Service
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June 25, 2010

Washington - While drug use has largely stabilised in industrial countries, there are signs that it may be on the rise in developing countries, says a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the impact of a rise in drug abuse could cause a lot more damage in developing countries than it has for their richer counterparts.

The report, titled "World Drug Report 2010" and released here Wednesday morning, found an overall shift in worldwide drug use to new drugs and new markets.

"To a large extent the rich countries have stabilised the drug problem and in some cases reduced it…but when it comes to the developing countries, they are facing a problem and a problem that will certainly grow in future years," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UNODC, told reporters Wednesday in Washington.

Costa cited the weaker health infrastructure, border security and treatment programmes that exist in developing countries as reasons to be concerned about this trend.

Rises in heroin use in Eastern Africa, in cocaine use in West Africa and South America, and in the production and abuse of synthetic drugs in the Middle East and Southeast Asia are all contributing to the growth of drug abuse in the developing world, the report says.

For now, though, rich countries still have a wide lead in drug consumption statistics.

While there are 2.7 million cocaine users in South and Central America and the Caribbean and an upward trend in West Africa, North America and Europe still account for a combined 70 of worldwide cocaine demand. Likewise, Western Europe remains tops in heroin consumption at 26 percent of the global market, though, after Russia, China pulls in third at 13 percent.

Illicit drug use is also shifting among rich countries. Cocaine consumption in the U.S. has declined significantly in the last few years while the number of cocaine users in Europe has doubled in the last decade. North America still leads Europe, however, with 37 billion dollars worth of market share and 5.3 million users in 2008, compared to Europe's 34 billion and 4.1 million, respectively.

With that increased interest from Europeans, new trafficking routes and networks are emerging, with West Africa a major hub for cocaine originating in the Andes. The UNODC fears this may encourage regional instability in transit countries.

"People snorting coke in Europe are killing the pristine forests of the Andean countries and corrupting governments in West Africa," said Costa.

Shifts are also evident in the types of drugs people are using.

The use of synthetic drugs like amphetamines and ecstasy as well as the abuse of prescription drugs is on the rise – so much so that the UNDOC expects the number of amphetamine- type stimulants alone to soon exceed that of cocaine and opiates combined.

These numbers are particularly troubling, both for researchers and enforcement. Localised production of substances that target consumers' preferences and an almost unlimited ability to churn out the lab-created drugs makes synthetic drugs a difficult problem to target.

And it is a problem that is migrating around the globe. Prescription drug abuse is on the rise in Africa and other developing regions and leading to addictions there, said Costa. The report also notes that both ecstasy production and consumption is moving beyond its primary market in Eastern Europe to developing countries in Asia and elsewhere.

"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 [synthetic drugs], produced in mafia labs at trivial costs," Costa said.

He added that "We will not solve the world drugs problem by shifting consumption from the developed to the developing world."

The production side of the drug equation, meanwhile, is largely down. Afghanistan remains the world's top producer of opium poppies, but a blight has attacked crops there, particularly in the Helmand and Kandahar regions where most of country's opium production takes place. The blight has wiped out about 25 percent of crops, according to Costa.

Overall, the UNDOC reports that the global area under opium cultivation has dropped by almost a quarter in the last two years, and the blight attacking Afghan crops looks to drag that number even further down.

Coca production is also down, continuing its trend over the last decade, during which time it has dropped by 28 percent.

The U.S., still a major destination for illicit drugs, recognises its role in creating demand for a product that has led to escalating violence in Mexico and impacted so many other countries around the globe, said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

He emphasised the importance of reduced demand and treatment programmes in the U.S. "We have to work on this in a very holistic way," he said.

As drug use increases in the developing world, though, these options may not be so viable there.

"Poor countries are not in a position to absorb the consequences of increased drug use," said Costa. "The developing world faces a looming crisis that would enslave millions to the misery of drug dependence."

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