By Phil Harris
Global opium production increased by one-third in 2016 compared with the previous year, primarily due to higher opium poppy yields in Afghanistan, and coca bush cultivation increased by 30 percent mainly as a result of increased cultivation in Colombia.
Following a period of decline, there are also signs that cocaine use is increasing in the two largest markets, North America and Europe.
In a statement at the launch of the report, UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov stressed that while the outcome document of the 2016 landmark UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem contains more than 100 concrete recommendations to reduce demand and supply, this is not enough.
“There is much work to be done to confront the many harms inflicted by drugs to health, development, peace and security, in all regions of the world,” said Fedotov.
Of the quarter of a billion people who used drugs in 2015, about 29.5 million – or 0.6 percent of the global adult population – were said to be engaged in “problematic use” and suffered from drug use disorders, including dependence, while opioids were the most harmful type of drug type and accounted for 70 percent of the negative health impact associated with drug use disorders worldwide.
According to the report, the harm caused by opioids is particularly evident in the United States where misuse of pharmaceutical opioids, coupled with an increase in heroin and fentanyl use, has resulted in a combined and interrelated epidemic, as well as an increase in morbidity and mortality related to opioids.
The United States accounts for approximately one-quarter of the estimated number of drug-related deaths worldwide, including overdose deaths, which continue to rise. Mostly driven by opioids, overdose deaths in the United States more than tripled during the period 1999-2015, from 16,849 to 52,404 annually, and increased by 11.4 percent in 2016 alone, to reach the highest level ever recorded.
“Indeed,” says the report, “far more people die from the misuse of opioids in the United States each year than from road traffic accidents or violence.”
Besides highlighting the increase in opium production and the thriving cocaine market, the report also points to scientific evidence for hepatitis C causing greatest harm among people who use drugs; and spotlights further diversification of the booming drug market, as well as changing business models for drug trafficking and organised crime.
Disorders related to the use of amphetamines also account for a considerable share of the global burden of disease. And while the market for new psychoactive substances (NPS) is still relatively small, users are unaware of the content and dosage of psychoactive substances in some NPS, potentially exposing users to additional serious health risks.
The report finds that hepatitis C is causing the greatest harm among the estimated 12 million people who inject drugs worldwide. About 1.6 million people are living with HIV and 6.1 million are living with hepatitis C, while around 1.3 million are suffering from both hepatitis C and HIV. Overall, three times more people who use drugs die from hepatitis C (222,000) than from HIV (60,000).
However, notes the report, despite recent advances in the treatment of hepatitis C, access remains poor because treatment remains very expensive in most countries.
The spectrum of substances available on the drug market is also reported to have widened considerably, with the persistence of traditional drugs and the emergence of NPS every year. A characteristic of drug use patterns for many years, polydrug use – the combination of different drugs – is not a new phenomenon; however, it now poses an even greater risk because of the sheer number of substances on the market and the potential combinations that can be used.
The opioid market is also becoming more diversified, as illustrated by the United States, where the opioid market comprises a combination of internationally controlled substances, particularly heroin, and prescription medicines that are either diverted from the legal market or produced as counterfeit medicines on a large scale.
These counterfeit medicines are made to look like pharmaceutical products while actually containing fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, as well as non-opioid substances such as derivatives of benzodiazepine and methylphenidate.
Meanwhile, transnational organised crime groups across the globe were estimated to have generated between one-fifth and one-third of their revenues in 2014 from drug sales. According to the UNODC report, mobile communications offer new opportunities to traffickers, while the ‘darknet’ allows users to anonymously buy drugs with a crypto-currency, such as bitcoin.
Although drug trafficking over the ‘darknet’ remains small, there has been an increase in drug transactions, of some 50 percent annually between September 2013 and January 2016, with typical buyers being recreational users of cannabis, “ecstasy”, cocaine, hallucinogens and NPS.