Here’s what a new UN report says about trends in global drug use

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime just released its annual drug report. In summary, things are okay. We could be doing better on protecting people from the harmful effects of illegal and illicit drugs, but we’re not actually getting worse at it. About five percent of the global population between the ages of 15 and 64 used drugs in 2014 – the most recent year data is available. That percentage is big, but it’s no bigger than 2010. However, the number of people suffering from “drug use disorders,” as defined by the report, has increased from 27 million to 29.5 million.

From the World Drug Report
From the World Drug Report

The report is an exhaustive discussion of nearly every kind of drug, in every region of the world. It goes deep into academic articles, law enforcement data, and public sector indicators to identify the current state of illicit drug use, globally. The first half of the report looks at drug use. It examines supply of and demand for opiates, cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants and new psychoactive substances. The second half of the report puts those numbers into context. It looks at drug use and the illegal drug trade and their intersection with the Sustainable Development Goals.

According to the report, all 17 Sustainable Development goals are affected by drug use and dependency.  It’s obvious how drugs affect the health goal, “Opioids, cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis together accounted for almost 12 million life years lost due to premature death or disability in 2013.” Other relationships are more complex. Gender equality, they argue, is impacted, because women “bear a heavy burden of violence and deprivation associated with the drug dependence of family members.” Poverty, they argue, makes drug use worse by pushing farmers to grow illegal crops and depriving people with drug dependencies from being able to get help.

From the World Drug Report
From the World Drug Report

One of the most interesting linkages is between drugs and the environment.

Illicit crops contribute to deforestation — in fact, they are disproportionately grown in biodiversity “hit spots” where their cultivation does the most damage. Drug trafficking also contributes to deforestation. Secret roads and landing strips are frequently built in nature reserves, leading to environmental damage. Finally, the toxic chemicals used to manufacture opioids and stimulants are often dumped in ways that cause harm to both rural and urban environments.

The relationship between drugs and violence is more complicated than you’d expect. While we tend to assume that drugs and violence are always linked, that’s not the case. Drug trafficking, rather than drug use, carries the major links to violence. And even drug trafficking does not inevitably lead to violence. The report points out that the countries who make up the opiate trafficking routes in Asia actually have low levels of homicide. According to UNODC, violence stems from drug trafficking when that trafficking is highly profitable. The profits allow drug traffickers to purchase higher level weaponry, making conflict much more dangerous. They also weaken governments, “At the same time, the wealth and power of drug trafficking organizations provide them with resources to buy protection from law enforcement agents, from politicians and the business sector, thereby reinforcing corruption.”

The cost of the global drug problem is surprisingly high. According to the report, “Several economic studies have done so, and their results show that the cost ranged between 0.07 and 1.7 per cent of GDP of the countries studied.”

The report ends with a nuanced take on the impact of development on drug use. Development can give the farmers who grow drug crops other choices, but it can also expose them to pressure to grow more drugs. Freer, more globalized trade can bring cheaper consumer goods and a better material quality of life; it can also bring access to new types of illicit drugs. Trade openness can foster alliances among drug traffickers.

From the World Drug Report
From the World Drug Report

What the report doesn’t say

Many policy experts believe that the most effective way to take the profit out of drugs is to legalize them. Removing the link between drugs and crime would have a major impact on nearly every linkage discussed in the report.

However, the report discusses decriminalizing or legalizing drugs only in the section on cannabis, in the context of examining the impact of legalization. In that section, it finds that the health and public safety effects of legalization have yet to be determined.

One sentence takeaway

Illicit drugs have a damaging impact in every country and in many sectors, but they’re not getting more destructive.