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UN Warns of Heightened Drug Use and Convergent Crime Risks

Global illegal drug use is significantly higher than previously estimated, according to a new United National Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report released today. World drug problems do not affect all corners of the world equally, though, and this edition of the UNODC World Drug Report seeks to highlight the complexity behind evolving drug threats.

Illegal drug use in general increased by 23 percent, with an estimated 296 million people having used drugs in 2021—approximately one in every 17 people aged 15 to 64. Drug-related disorders have increased 45 percent during the past decade, reaching nearly 40 million people.

Cannabis remains by far the most-used drug worldwide, with an estimated 219 million users, but opioids were in second place, with 60 million estimated non-medical users in 2021. Opioids remain the leading cause of fatal overdose deaths, though, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the 128,000 deaths attributed to drug use disorders in 2019.

Overall, 13.2 million people injected illegal drugs in 2021—18 percent more than previously estimated—and synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine are dominating the market. The use of injectable drugs increases the risk of spreading bloodborne infections such as HIV or hepatitis C, UNODC reports. The World Health Organization estimates that 23 percent of new hepatitis C infections are attributable to unsafe drug injection.

The report notes that people with mental health disorders, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and young people were the most vulnerable. In addition, people in underdeveloped and underserved communities are also at risk from violence and insecurity fueled by drug trafficking, as well as insufficient access to controlled medicines, the report notes.

“Illicit drug economies can flourish in situations of conflict and weak rule of law and can, in turn, prolong or fuel conflict,” the UNODC says. “When conflicts have erupted in areas with sizeable drug production or trafficking activities, the parties to the conflict have exploited them, either through direct involvement or through the ‘taxation’ of such activities. In some conflict areas, the drug economy and instability are linked through a vicious cycle in which weak rule of law facilitates the expansion of the drug economy, which can, in turn, provide financial resources for maintaining or expanding the conflict. Conflicts may, however, also disrupt traditional commercial trade and travel patterns, upsetting the illegal flow of drugs that are often concealed in legitimate channels.”

For example, “parts of the Amazon Basin are at the intersection of multiple forms of organized crime that are accelerating environmental devastation, with severe implications for the security, health, and well-being of the population across the region,” according to UNODC.

“Convergent crimes, such as protection and extortion rackets, money laundering, and corruption, have turned tri-border areas in the Amazon Basin into violent hotspots, with the presence of diverse organized criminal groups that are simultaneously engaged in cocaine production and trafficking, and natural resource exploitation,” the report says.

Additionally, the illegal drug trade in the Sahel region of West Africa finances non-state armed and insurgency groups, UNODC says. Plus, in Haiti, drug traffickers are known to take advantage of porous borders to grow their business—which fuels the country’s ongoing and multiplying crises

Humanitarian emergencies—including those tied to armed conflicts and crime waves—often lead to mass migration. People who are forcibly displaced can suffer acute physical and psychological trauma, putting them at increased vulnerability to mental health crises and substance abuse disorders. The report cautions, though, that the extent and pattern of substance abuse among displaced populations is not dissimilar to that of the general population, but displaced people often lack access to health infrastructures and socio-economic resources to treat mental health or drug abuse issues.

Barriers to treatment also affect people unevenly. Only one in five people with drug use disorders received drug treatment in 2021, and the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the existing treatment gap. Young people are more vulnerable to drug use than adults, the report notes. In South America, more than half of people in drug treatment are under 25 years old; in Africa, 70 percent are under 35.

Women are underrepresented in drug treatment, especially among women who use amphetamine-type stimulants.

“In addition to the family expectations and responsibilities that they face, women may experience further barriers in accessing treatment that include increased fear of legal sanctions, increased social stigma, lack of childcare, and fear of losing custody of children while in treatment,” according to the report. “Women who use drugs and are also members of certain population groups, for example, trauma and violence survivors, people with comorbidities, sex workers, prisoners, or members of ethnic minorities, face more severe vulnerabilities, including higher levels of stigma and discrimination.”