UN: Cocaine Use Up in Latin America, Pill-Popping Up in US

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Drug use in several Latin American countries, including Mexico, is rising significantly, said a new report by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). The report is short on specific data per country, but does confirm a trend observed by analysts in recent years: cocaine use is down in the United States but up in Europe, while “crack” cocaine appears to be more avaliable in transit countries like Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela.

The report does not break down how much drug consumption has reportedly increased or decreased by country, but it does provide a useful summary of some general trends.

The first is the declining avaliability of cocaine in the U.S., as evidenced by the higher prices that low-purity cocaine is fetching on the streets. But while North America (Canda, the U.S. and Mexico) still accounts for 41 percent of the world’s cocaine consumption, use is growing in Europe (representing 29 percent of the world’s total cocaine consumption) and the Southern Cone (between 10 and 20 percent), the report says.

In Latin America, a particular concern is the reported increase of abuse of cheap cocaine derivatives. In Mexico, “the government reported a sharp increase in the abuse of cocaine, particularly ‘crack,’ and methamphetamine in 2008,” the report states. Notably, 449 drug-related deaths were due to cocaine overdoses in 2009, an increase of 90 percent from 2008, evidence of the drug’s increased avaliability in Mexico. 

The report also notes that crack abuse has increased in Brazil and Venezuela, where reportedly 11.9 percent of the population uses cocaine derivatives. Cocaine use is also rising in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, says the report.

Increased drug use in Latin America signals that traffickers are becoming more focused on cultivating the domestic markets in producer or transit countries. As previously noted by InSight, this is partly because the major cartels in Mexico and Colombia have been dismantled, and fragmented, smaller groups are taking over who need the income from local distribution. This would explain in part the rising street-level violence seen in countries everywhere from Mexico to Honduras (where 60 percent of all crimes are said to be drug-related) to Panama (where the murder rate has doubled from 2006 to 2009).

As traffickers focus on distributing more of their product domestically, be it cannabis or cocaine derivatives like Colombia’s “bazuco” or Argentina’s “paco,” more local gangs emerge in the interest of controlling a piece of that market. With more local groups competing against one another, as well as increased addiction rates as drugs become more avaliable, murder rates go up, social ills intensify, and ever-smaller “plazas” become more important for local groups to viciously defend. This in part explains the increased urban violence that InSight has observed across the region, and which the INCB report in part confirms.

Meanwhile, Latin America’s rising demand for cocaine and crack is complimented by a similar rise in demand from Europe. Cocaine abusers in Western and Central Europe doubled from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2008, and the continent now accounts for a quarter of global cocaine consumption, according to the report.

This confirms again the increased importance of the European market for traffickers like Daniel Barrera and the Zetas, who are looking to exploit new international routes as the security crackdown continues in Mexico. 

Tellingly, while the INCD reports on declining cocaine use in the U.S., the number of deaths from drug overdose is increasing in that country. According to the INCD, 38,371 drug-related deaths registered in 2007, double the number registered in 1999. “In a number of states, the number of drug-related deaths has surpassed the number of deaths resulting from motor vehicle accidents,” the report states.

This is partly explained by the increased abuse of prescription drugs in the U.S, which has now become “the fastest-growing drug problem in the country,” the INCB report notes. Twelve and a half million people reported abusing pain relievers like Vicodin or Oxycodone in 2009, compared with 11.9 million in 2008.

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