Press Releases

26 June 2008

UNODC Report Warns that Progress in Drug Control is under Threat

Higher coca and opium cultivations reported

VIENNA, 26 June (UN Information Service) - The World Drug Report 2008, launched today by the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, shows that the recent stabilization in the world drugs market is under threat. A surge in opium and coca cultivation and the risk of higher drug use in developing countries threaten to undermine recent progress in drug control.

Less than 5 per cent of all adults take drugs

The UNODC drug report shows that less than one in every twenty people (age 15-64) have tried drugs at least once in the past 12 months. Problem drug users (people with severe drug dependence) are less than one tenth of this already low percentage: 26 million people, about 0.6 per cent of the planet's adult population.

"In recent years drug control has made impressive achievements, especially in comparison to other psychoactive substances", said the head of UNODC. Tobacco kills 5 million people a year, alcohol about 2.5 million; and illicit drugs around 200,000 persons a year worldwide. "Drug control has delivered important results: heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs, while devastating to the individual user, have not had as serious a public health impact as tobacco and alcohol", said Mr. Costa. Nevertheless, he warned that "in the future, we need to be even more proactive. Recent major increases in drug supply from Afghanistan and Colombia may drive addiction rates up, because of lower prices and higher purity of doses".

Drug control has been effective

The international drug control system was constructed over the course of a century, starting from the commission created in 1909 in Shanghai to control the opium trade. This year's World Drug Report looks back at 100 years of drug policies. It shows that global opium production is some 70 per cent lower as compared to a century ago, even though the global population quadrupled over the same period. The Report also reviews drug trends since a special General Assembly session (UNGASS) in 1998 urged countries to do more to control drugs. "Drug statistics show that the drug problem was dramatically reduced over the past century, and has stabilized over the past 10 years", said Mr. Costa.

A surge in heroin supply and coca cultivation in areas controlled by insurgents

However, the World Drug Report 2008 sounds an alarm about the very recent surge in drug supply. Afghanistan had a record opium harvest in 2007; as a consequence, the world's illegal opium production has almost doubled since 2005. Most cultivation (80 per cent) took place in five southern provinces, where Taliban insurgents profit from drugs. In the rest of the country opium cultivation is either coming to an end or declining to low levels. "Greater stability and higher economic assistance are getting rid of opium in many provinces of Afghanistan. In the southern areas, controlled by the Taliban, counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency must be fought together", said the UN drugs chief.

The same pattern is evident in Colombia, where coca cultivation increased by a quarter (27 per cent) in 2007, though remaining some 40 per cent below the peak reached in 2000. Coca leaf and cocaine production were highly concentrated: ten municipalities (5 per cent of the country's 195) accounted for almost half of all cocaine production (288 metric tons) and for one third of the cultivation (35,000 hectares). "In Colombia, just like in Afghanistan, the regions where most coca is grown are under the control of insurgents", observed Mr. Costa.

Despite this significant increase in coca cultivation, cocaine production in Colombia (the world's biggest producer) remained unchanged because of lower yields, due to the exploitation of peripheral coca plots, which are smaller, more dispersed and in remote locations. "In the past few years, the Colombian Government destroyed the large-scale coca plots by means of massive aerial eradication. It was an unquestionably successful campaign against armed groups and drug traffickers alike. In the future, with the FARC in disarray, it may become easier to control coca cultivation", said Mr. Costa.

Cannabis and amphetamine markets are stable

The world cannabis market is stable or even slightly down. Cannabis herb production is estimated to be some 8 per cent lower than in 2004 and cannabis resin production declined by some 20 per cent between 2004 and 2006. Nevertheless, there are worrying trends: Afghanistan has become a major producer of cannabis resin, perhaps exceeding Morocco. In developed countries, indoor cultivation is producing more potent strains of cannabis herb. The average level of the drug's psychoactive substance (Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC) almost doubled on the US market between 1999 and 2006, from 4.6 per cent to 8.8 per cent.

Use of amphetamine-type stimulants, like methamphetamine and ecstasy, has levelled off at the global level since the year 2000. Nonetheless, production and consumption remain a major problem in East and South-East Asia and markets are starting to develop in the Near and Middle East.

New trafficking routes

The Report confirms that there has been a systemic shift in major drug routes, particularly for cocaine. Because of the steady demand for cocaine in Europe and improved interdiction along traditional routes, drug traffickers have targeted West Africa. The region's health and security is at risk. "States in the Caribbean, Central America and West Africa, as well as the border regions of Mexico, are caught in the cross-fire between the world's biggest coca producers (the Andean countries) and biggest consumers (North America and Europe)", warned Mr. Costa. "Drug money corrupts Governments, and even turns into terrorist financing: Promotion of the rule of law is the best way to fight the drug trade".

The World Drug Report 2008 discloses the fear - though not yet the evidence - of emerging markets for drugs in developing countries. "The threat to poor nations is certainly there. Weak Governments cannot face the onslaught of powerful drug barons, or drug addiction. The attack must be pre-empted by technical assistance, better drug prevention and treatment, and more cooperative law enforcement", said the head of UNODC.

A stronger focus on health and human rights

Pointing out that resources for public security far outweigh those devoted to public health, he called for a stronger focus on health - the first principle of drug control. "Drug dependence is an illness that should be prevented and treated like any other", said Mr. Costa.

Referring to this year's 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the head of UNODC also called for full respect of human rights in the exercise of drug control. He spoke out in favour of the human rights of drug addicts and against the death penalty for drug-related crimes. "Although drugs kill, we should not kill because of drugs", said Mr. Costa.

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For information, please contact:

Walter Kemp
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Telephone: (+43-1) 26060 5629
Mobile: (+43-699) 1459 5629

  Main Messages for UNODC World Drug Report 2008 - Backgrounder (PDF)