UN World Drug Report: New Drugs, New Users

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The United Nations’ latest annual report on drug trafficking illustrates the adaptability of the global trade, whose participants are quick to take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization, and create new narcotics as quickly as others are banned.

InSight Crime identifies some key themes from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2012 World Drug Report, which looks at developments in the world drug trade in the last decade.

1) Drug Consumption Is Stable

Perhaps the single most important point to take away from the report is that globally, despite the vast sums poured into the war on drugs, consumption of illicit drugs remains stable. Between 2005 and 2010 the level is estimated to have stayed at between 3.4 and 6.6 percent of the adult population worldwide.

Gains in one area are offset by losses in another; while cocaine consumption dropped in the US, down from 3 percent in 2006 to 2.2 percent in 2010, it stabilized in Europe and grew in Australia. As noted in the previous year’s report, declining drug production in Colombia has been accompanied by increases elsewhere. Colombia’s falling coca output between 2006-2010 was met by a “sizable shift” of production to Peru and Bolivia.

2) Monitoring the Cocaine Trade Is Not Easy

The World Drug Report says that, despite a fall in cocaine production worldwide, consumption remains stable. This contradictory-sounding statement exemplifies some of the difficulties of accurately monitoring the cocaine trade.

The problem starts with getting accurate data on cultivation. As the report sets out, although the governments of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia try to use the same methods to estimate coca production, differences in security risks, climate, and the size of the area being monitored mean that their figures are often incompatible. Some of the difficulties arise because of differences in the dynamics of the business. In Peru and Bolivia coca growing is kept to certain well-known areas, meaning that it is easier to monitor, says the report. In Colombia, by contrast, coca growing takes place over a larger area, and the use of aerial fumigation means that growing sites are constantly shifting. This makes it harder to monitor, and necessitates different techniques than in its coca-growing neighbors.

Counting the amount of cocaine seized also fails to offer an accurate picture of the market. Globally, some 694 tons was confiscated in 2010. This does not mean that more than half the global output of cocaine (estimated to be 788-1,060 tons annually) was intercepted, however, as the purity of the confiscated drugs is not known. Additionally, as the UN points out, there is overreporting, and if two countries collaborate on a seizure they may both report the figure. Though cocaine seizures remained fairly stable between 2006 and 2010, declining purity meant that a smaller quantity of the drug was actually intercepted, says the report.

What we do know, according to the UN, is that the area under coca cultivation has seen a significant decline in recent years, down by some 18 percent globally between 2007 and 2010. This was due to security gains in Colombia, where the area (adjusted for small fields) dropped from 73,000 hectares in 2009 to 62,000 the following year. Bolivia and Peru saw small increases in the period, up to 31,000 and 61,200 respectively. However, even Colombia’s established victories against coca going could be reversed. A recent report from Colombian newspaper El Tiempo said that 2011 figures for the country, due to be released by the UN in mid July, would show that the area under coca cultivation rose again slightly last year to 64,000.

3) Globalization Offers New Opportunities to Traffickers

The report highlights various ways that traffickers have taken advantage of the increasingly globalized, interconnected world to get their products to market. The Internet makes it easier to launder funds, to find out about price levels in different markets, and to obtain precursor chemicals used to manufacture drugs, it explains.

Burgeoning international trade can also work to the advantage of drug traffickers. The growth in trade over the last two decades means a growth in the number of shipping containers sent around the world, according to the UN. It is easy to conceal narcotics within the massive global movement of containers — the report says that container shipments come to some 1,100 million tons a year worldwide, of which the world’s entire illicit drug production would use up less than 0.005 percent. The huge volume of licit trade makes it harder for law enforcement to spot illegal goods.

The increase in air travel also facilitates drug trafficking, providing more opportunities to ship drugs in freight or using “mules,” as the UN points out.

4) Developing Countries Offer New Drug Markets

As well as new methods for transporting drugs, traffickers are seeking new markets. One key trend noted in the report is a shift in drug consumption from developed to developing countries, with growing drug use in regions such as Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

This is also true of Latin America, though the report says cocaine use declined slightly in South America between 2009 and 2010, from 0.9 to 0.7 percent of the adult population. However, Brazil is seeing increased cocaine use, with federal seizures of the drug tripling to 27 tons in 2010, and seizures rose eight-fold in Argentina between 2002 and 2009, says the World Drug Report. Meanwhile, the rate of consumption stands at a slightly lower 0.5 percent in Central America, and 0.7 percent in the Caribbean.

The use of cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy is reported to be particularly high among young people in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, according to the UN. Some countries in the region, including Argentina, El Salvador, Peru and Uruguay have reported the use of horse tranquilizer ketamine.

Along with the growing middle class, consumption in producer countries like Colombia is driven by increased interdiction efforts on the part of the US and Latin governments. If it becomes more difficult to ship the product abroad, it is in the interest of traffickers to seek out a domestic market for their product.

5) Synthetic Drugs Offer New Ways to Beat the Law

The report also notes that the fight to cut production of plant-based drugs like heroin and cocaine is partly offset by increased production of synthetic drugs. Traffickers are increasingly working to engineer narcotics that are not regulated, such as mephedrone and MDPV, often sold as bath salts or plant food.

This highlights again the adaptability of the multi-billion business, and helps explain why consumption remains stable, despite the best efforts of the world’s governments.

Image, above, shows a drug user in Buenos Aires holding several doses of a crack-like drug called paco.

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