World drug threat, the UN reports

The production of coca leaf has more than doubled and that of opium poppy more than tripled since 1985, according to statistics produced by the United Nations International Drugs Control Programme.

The World Drug Report* presents a factual picture in global trends in illicit drug production, trafficking, and use. The report contains useful definitions of terminology and a brief, but lucid, explanation of the chemical make-up of various drugs and their effects, both physical and psychological, on the user. Both provide a valuable reference for anyone interested in the field who might be confused by rhetoric and rival claims.

The huge increase in the volume of raw material production has inevitably led to a dramatic increase in the worldwide land area under drug cultivation, which had reached 280,000 hectares by 1996. The vast majority (90%) of illicit opiates is produced in the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Golden Triangle (Laos, Burma, Thailand). The recently independent countries of Central Asia are emerging as potentially important producers.

Ninety eight per cent of the world's coca is grown in Peru, Columbia, and Bolivia. Peru accounts for half the 220,000 hectares given over globally to the production of 300,000 tonnes of coca leaf in 1996 which, in turn, allowed the manufacture of 1,000 tonnes of cocaine.

Trends in global production of illicit drugs (index:1985=100)

Synthetic drugs
The report goes on to highlight the growth in the use of synthetic drugs: "Since the mid-1980s the world has faced a wave of synthetic stimulant abuse, with approximately nine times the quantity seized in 1993 than in 1978, equivalent to an average annual increase of 16 per cent. The principle synthetic drugs manufactured clandestinely are the amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) which include the widely abused amphetamine and methamphetamine, as well as the more recently popularised methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), known as ecstasy." It is estimated that throughout the world 30,000,000, people use ATS. This is 0.5 per cent of the global population and exceeds the number using heroin and probably those using cocaine.

The late date of the international control mechanism for synthetic pharmaceuticals (1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances) resulted from the dilemma facing governments to strike a balance between prevention of harm from misuse and ensuring their availability for medical purposes. For a long time diversion from legitimate laboratories or prescription fraud were the major sources of ATS, but now the majority of synthetic drugs on the illicit market are produced clandestinely for non-medical purposes. "Consequently, unless serious attempts are made to tackle the causes of, and to reduce the demand for, these drugs, existing drug-control systems cannot be effective."

After discussing these trends and developments, The World Drug Report moves on to the health and social consequences of drug abuse. Some of the conclusions drawn, that dysfunctional family life and drug taking often go together, for example, are already well-known, whilst others, such as the fact that the age of initiation appears to be falling and that young people around the world see drug-taking as normal, indicate that the new generation of users is already well in place.

Drugs and health
Injecting is the most dangerous way of taking illicit drugs. One of the main reasons for this is the connection between unsafe injecting habits and the risk of HIV/AIDS infection. In Europe most cases of HIV infection are caused by injecting drug use (IDU). The report states that "having unprotected heterosexual intercourse with an HIV-infected injecting drug user is the most likely way in which a careless, non-injecting, otherwise 'average person' might contract HIV. Sharing needles also carries a very high risk, whether the method of injection be intravenous, intramuscular, or beneath the skin ('skin-popping')."

The IDU population also risks contracting hepatitis B and C, the latter being a major cause of chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. A re-emerging threat is tuberculosis (TB). According to the World Health Organization, TB cases associated with HIV infection, and hence with injecting drug use, are expected to multiply seven times during the next decade.

The disinhibiting effect that alcohol and other drugs have on "decision-making about safer sex and overall sexual safety, the association of drug use with commercial sex, the increasing use of crack cocaine, sex with multiple partners, and bartering sex for drugs" makes users prone to a higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.

As far as crime is concerned, the report makes the point that the causal relationship between it and illicit drug use defies simple analysis. However, it draws on the results arrived at in the few countries to have carried out rigorous research to come to the following conclusions:

  • involvement in property crime can pre-date illicit drug use, facilitating experimental or casual use and then dependence;
  • dependent drug use can pre-date other forms of crime and precipitate these (although this is less common);
  • once dependence occurs, especially upon heroin, property crime increases and narcotic use is further increased; and,
  • drug treatment programmes reduce the criminality of dependent drug users while they are in treatment.

Part of the social cost of drug use can be calculated from the number of people who go through the courts charged with drug-related crime. The report quotes the sentencing costs for breaches of the drug laws in England, Wales, and Scotland in 1988, which were estimated to be £56,850,000.

National Economies
'Producer' countries without diverse economies are particularly hit by the illicit drug trade. The report concludes that it is a false assumption that these states derive any real financial benefit, even in the acquisition of hard foreign currency. "The relatively small portion of profits fromillegal drugs which are brought into the country can itself be distortional (to the national economy)". It appears that, rather than for productive investment purposes, the small share of profits brought into the producer countries is used to maintain the position of the drug trafficking organisations or to engage in non-productive (conspicuous) consumption.

In a country like Bolivia, with a small range of legitimate exports, 10 per cent of the labour force is engaged in the production of illicit drugs. The 60,000 farmers cultivating coca leaf, and hence, of course, failing to produce food crops, are only a part of this figure. It is believed that since 1986 coca-cocaine exports have accounted for 28-53 per cent of the value of Bolivia's total exports. It is possible that the coca-cocaine exports might be worth more than twice all the others combined.

For Burma (Myanmar) and Afghanistan the percentage is higher since neither country has other significant exports. Even for a country like Pakistan, with a more diverse and sophisticated economy, illicit drug exports in 1992 are calculated as amounting to US$1.5 billion, a figure equivalent to one fifth of the total exports of the United States.

In the USA itself economic distortions occur as a result of unexplained currency surpluses. The report states, "Total illicit drug expenditures at the retail level in the USA alone are estimated at US$50 billion in the mid-1990s".

Apparent 'benefits' of illicit drug industry in the early 1990s
(income generation in percent of gross domestic prodauct)

Policy Developments
During the last ten years, two of the greatest influences on worldwide drug policies have pulled in different directions. The spread of HIV/AIDS has moved governments towards an emphasis on health and medical issues, whilst the huge increase in cocaine trafficking and the crime with which it is associated has driven policy back towards concentration on law enforcement. The report makes the point, so often observed by those working in the field, that health and law enforcement objectives sometimes conflict.

Policy has been influenced by changes in the perception of 'producer' and 'consumer' states. The former have seen a considerable increase in abuse problems whilst, in the latter, the manufacture of synthetic drugs and trafficking have emerged as urgent policy issues.

Since its establishment in 1946, the United Nations has exercised drug control functions and responsibilities. The report sees the UN role as one of developing and reconciling different trends in world drug policy. "The complexity and number of the legal agreements on drugs...created the need for unification and simplification. Efforts in this direction, culminating in the three different drug control Conventions, represent a continuing quest to reconcile the differing medical, scientific, political, social and economic interests of an increasing number of participating countries as the number of substances continues to proliferate."

*The World Drug Report (United Nations International Drug Control Programme), Oxford University Press, 1997, £14.99.

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