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Combatting Illicit Drug Production, Trafficking and Consumption: 5 Highlights of the 2014 World Drug Report

Note: This guest post was written by Kaitlyn Reusch. Kaitlyn is a 2014 graduate of the School of Diplomacy. She is currently an Associate Editor of the Global Health Governance Journal and her areas of interest include international organizations, children’s rights, global health. She has previously written and presented on improving compliance within the International Criminal Court and ethnic conflict in the Former Yugoslavia.


Last month, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released their 2014 World Drug Report. This annual report details the key developments for each of the four main illicit drugs on the international market: amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids, including use and trafficking patterns. This year’s report also provides an overview of the impact of drugs on health and examines how precursors factor into the use and trafficking of drugs and how regulating these materials may aid in controlling the manufacture of these illicit drugs. This report comes at a time when there is an increasing debate among members of the international community about the world drug problem: in March of this year, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) conducted a high-level review of the implementation of the Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem. This review paved the foundation for talks to be held by the General Assembly at a special session in 2016.

1) Stopping the spread of HIV and Hepatitis

While the use of drugs via injection poses health risks from the substance alone, further health hazards result from unsafe injecting procedures. Using contaminated equipment has resulted in high incidences of people contracting HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. According to the 2012 joint global estimate compiled by the UNODC, World Health Organization (WHO), Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and World Bank, the prevalence of HIV among those who inject drugs is 13.1 per cent. Regionally, this prevalence more than doubles when looking at South-West Asia (28.8 per cent) and is slightly less (23.0 per cent) for Eastern/South-Eastern Europe. This joint estimate also noted that the prevalence of Hepatitis C among those who inject drugs is much higher, at a staggering 52.0 per cent. Such a difference may be attributed to Hepatitis C being more easily transmitted than HIV.

To halt the spread of these diseases four of the most important interventions are considered in the report: needle and syringe programs, opioid substitution therapy, HIV testing and counselling, and antiretroviral therapy. While the use of interventions varies by region, needle and syringe programs are considered top priority. Coverage of these types of services are highest in Western and Central Europe, with nearly all countries having such programs. The intervention with the highest prevalence is the coverage of HIV testing and counselling.

2) Cannabis

Of amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids, cannabis and opioids are considered to be the two predominant drugs used throughout the world. Regionally, Africa, North America, Western and Central Europe, and Oceania have the greatest use of cannabis. While cannabis use has decreased globally, its use has increased in the United States. This may be attributed to the declining risk perception and new regulatory frameworks in Colorado and Washington, which allow for recreational use of the drug under some restrictions. Keeping these frameworks in mind as well as an increasing availability of cannabis, decrease in seizures of the cannabis herb, and the ability of tax revenues to provide public revenue, the global use of cannabis may increase.

3) Opioids and Opiates

For the third year, Afghanistan remained the world’s largest poppy cultivator, with the area under cultivation increasing from 154,000 to 209,000 hectares between 2012 and 2013. The Golden Triangle area of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand also continued to grow, with an increase of 6,800 hectares in the same period. According to the report, with increased cultivation areas, opioid use has increased over the past year, to between 28.6 and 38 million people, with the greatest increase taking place in the United States. There is also concern as to how opioids and opiates are being used. Because heroin is most commonly taken via injection, there is the risk of spreading HIV and Hepatitis with contaminated needles and syringes. Especially in higher income countries, individuals will misuse or become addicted to prescription narcotic pain medications, like OxyContin. As a result countries need to develop public health policies allowing for those who need these medicines for medical purposes to have access to them while preventing the misuse of these same prescriptions.

4) Precursors

Precursors to illicit drugs are the chemicals that are used to transform both plant-based and synthetic drugs into their final product. At the UN, this includes all chemicals controlled under the 1988 Convention. Previous efforts to eradicate crops and create alternative development processes could only be applied to plant-based drugs, but by controlling precursors, the international community can also target synthetic drugs. With the implementation of controls on precursors, the international community has seen an increased volume of chemicals saved from diversion, high rates of precursor interception, reduced availability of drugs and stark increases in prices in the illicit market. However, these improved controls have prompted clandestine counter-strategies including using internet sources, creating front companies to conceal illegal imports, working with organized criminal groups, trafficking through countries with weak control systems, and using pre-precursors.

5) Trafficking Trends

The 2014 report also discusses trafficking trends and particularly notes the changing marketplace. Traditional heroin trade routes from the Golden Triangle of South-East Asia into Oceania and other areas of South-East Asia are being replaced by those coming from Afghanistan and smuggling routes into Europe through the Middle East and Africa are expanding. South America has also seen changes in trafficking. With the geographical location and large urban centers, Brazil has been a site of increased cocaine trafficking.

In addition to conventional land and water-based routes, use of virtual marketplaces found in the “dark net” has been a new source of buying and selling illicit substances. These sites are not accessible by search engines and the identities of operators and visitors are hidden by intricate concealment measures. As an added layer of security, purchases are made using bitcoins, a type of digital currency, to avoid any type of paper trail. These “dark net” sites are likely to remain a trafficking concern because of advances in technology to improve concealment measures and because these sites can be very lucrative- when “Silk Road”, a leading “dark net” site, was discovered and dismantled, it had accrued approximately $1.2 billion in revenue over two to five years.

The complete text of the 2014 World Drug Report may be found here.

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