Is cocaine consumption really rising?

Colombia's coca cultivation boom is not only being blamed for increased cocaine consumption in the United States, it is also being held responsible for an alleged growth in local demand in Colombia. But the evidence doesn't stack up. And these unsubstantiated notions are being used to drum up support for misguided anti-narcotic policies.

William Brownfield, the outgoing head of the US State Department's anti-drug bureau, recently went so far as to claim that the relationship between growing Colombian cocaine production and US consumption was "symbiotic." Yet there is insufficient evidence to assert that US cocaine consumption has grown, or that there is a causal link between production and demand within an illegal market in which an array of factors are at work. 

*This article was originally published by La Silla Vacía. It has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

This is not to understate the serious public health issue that drug consumption represents. But oversimplifications should be avoided, especially when voiced in support of failed, repressive policy measures, such as coca eradication via aerial fumigation and harsher criminal sentences.

Is US Consumption Really Growing?

The number of people in the United States who tried cocaine for the first time spiked in recent years, from 601,000 in 2013 to 968,000 in 2015, according the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Meanwhile, deaths from cocaine overdoses increased from around 4,700 in 2011 to around 7,000 in 2015. The US State Department has sounded the alarm over these figures and noted that Colombian cocaine accounts for an estimated 90 percent of the US cocaine supply.

The link may appear logical and evident at first sight, but not with a detailed analysis of the data. Calling for a cautious assessment, Beau Kilmer, a drug policy expert at the RAND Corporation, highlighted inconsistencies and shortcomings in the available US data on not only cocaine consumption but other drugs as well.

Only three of seven reliable sources reviewed by Kilmer show cocaine consumption to be on the rise, though this may be attributable to increased consumption by "heavy users," who can consume up to eight times as much as occasional users. The four other sources show stable or diminishing consumption.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production

Concerning lethal cocaine overdoses, it is important to note that the increase is due to a growing number of cases where the drug was mixed with potent opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that fatal cocaine overdoses actually dropped from 2.5 deaths per per 100,000 citizens in 2006 to 1.35 per 100,000 in 2010. They have since shot up by more than 60 percent in correlation with increased heroin and fentanyl consumption.

Meanwhile, according to a recent report by Hernando Zuleta, the director of the Center for Security and Drug Studies (Centro de Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas - CESED) of the Universidad de los Andes, increased cocaine consumption would not necessarily be a generalized trend, but rather a more local development within specific northern US states such as Alaska, Montana and Maine.

Consumption in Other Parts of the World

European cocaine consumption dynamics aren't clear-cut either. Despite early warning signs of possible increased availability, it is too early to state definitively that consumption is on the rise, according to the latest World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). What is certain is that usage levels were stable between 2011 and 2015, with around 0.9 percent of the population consuming the drug.

A country-by-country breakdown doesn't help much either. The latest report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) shows that among the countries that conducted a cocaine consumption survey in 2013, six showed an increase, two showed stable levels and four pointed to reductions. And the EMCDDA's study of cocaine residues in certain cities' wastewater showed stable or decreasing levels in most cases between 2013 and 2015.

As for Asia, the UNODC reported a surge in seizures of cocaine destined to the continent -- mostly for East and South East Asia -- from 400 kilograms in 1998 to 1.7 metric tons in 2015. But this alone is insufficient to establish increased consumption. The same is true for Australia, where a slight decrease in the drug price and a rise in cocaine seizures from around 100 kilograms in the 1990s to 1.2 metric tons in 2015 do not constitute sufficient evidence of increased consumption.

What About Colombia?

A 2016 report by the National Planning Department (Departamento Nacional de Planeación) raised concerns and spurred alarmist news headlines after asserting that "over the last seven years, [Colombia moved up] to occupy the fourth rank for cocaine and marijuana consumption in South America." What exactly is the evidence for this?

The report was based on five regular survey studies but with different timeframes, populations and scales.

 

Title

Start year

Final year

Population

Scale

National Study on the Consumption of Mind-Altering Substances

2008

2013

General population aged 12 to 65

Departmental and municipal capitals with a population under 30,000

National Study on the Consumption of Mind-Altering Substances among Students

2004

2011

Middle and high school students

Public and private institutions of all departments

Andean Epidemiology Study on Drug Consumption among University Students

2009

2012

Students from private and public universities

Cities with a population of over 300,000

CESED Survey on drug youth consumption

2013

2015

Population aged 18 to 35 in Bogotá

Bogotá

Study on the Consumption of Mind-Altering Substances in Bogotá

2009 2016

General population aged 12-65 in Bogotá

Bogotá

 

A glance at each study's figures of past-year consumption gives a very different outlook than that portrayed in mainstream media.

 

Past-year cocaine consumption as percentage of population

Study

Start year

Final Year

National Study on the Consumption of Mind-Altering Substances

0.71

0.7

National Study on the Consumption of Psychoactive Substances among Students

1.59

2.18

Andean Epidemiology Study on Drug Consumption among University Students

2.37

2.12

CESED Survey on drug youth consumption

3.5

2.4

Study on the Consumption of Mind-Altering Substances in Bogotá

0.54

0.75

 

In general, the conclusion that can be drawn from these figures is that available cocaine consumption data does not indicate large variations over the past decade. With specific regard to the significant increase in usage among middle and high school students, it is important to note that the studied period is from 2004 to 2011, before the boom in Colombia's coca cultivation.

Meanwhile, some have argued that increased coca cultivation has led to increased cocaine availability in Colombian cities. Of the five aforementioned studies, only the consumption survey of psychoactive substances in Bogotá looks at drug availability, and it does not indicate a significant increase between 2009 and 2016.

Better Think Twice

The evidence presented in this article allows one to draw the following conclusions:

  • Available data on US consumption is contradictory
  • European trends are stable and even decreasing in certain cities
  • In Asia and Oceania there is a lack of data beyond that of increased seizures
  • In Colombia, the data does not indicate significant variations in consumption levels, nor is there sufficient information to claim an increase in cocaine availability in Colombian cities

While there is no clear-cut evidence of increased consumption, countries should not let their guard down. With regard to the US situation, RAND's Kilmer warned that problematic consumption trends may not yet have shown up in surveys and studies, due to the time period over which a casual consumer may develop into a heavy user. What the available evidence does show is that around 16 percent of first time users will eventually develop a heavy consumption habit in the following decade.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

But at the moment, calls for harsher measures due to increased consumption should be met with skepticism. There are undeniably links between the production and the demand, but in a market as imperfect as the cocaine trade, there is also a disconnect between the two.

Instead of casting blame, countries would do well to focus their efforts and resources on addressing the public health issues that contribute to drug consumption, and the underlying socioeconomic development challenges in rural areas that are behind increased coca cultivation.

Instilling fear without evidence will only lead us to repeat failed policies of the past.

*This article was originally published by La Silla Vacía. It has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

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