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COVID pandemic drives global drug use, says UN report

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that the pandemic is plunging millions of people into poverty and unemployment worldwide and pushing more and more people into drug use. Low-income countries are most at risk.

The number of people using drugs worldwide is expect to rise by 11 percent by 2030, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report on Thursday.

Some 275 million people used drugs worldwide last year, up from 226 million in 2010. This 22% increase is partly due to a 10% increase in the world’s population over the past decade.

The Vienna-based agency brings together data from its vast network of member states in its annual World Drug Report.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warns that health systems worldwide face an increasingly difficult task. An estimated 36 million people are expected to be living with a substance use disorder in 2019, up from an earlier estimate of 27 million in 2010, an increase from 0.6% to 0.7% of the world’s population.

Although the number of people with substance use disorders has increased, the availability of treatment remains low. In 2019, only one in eight people with a substance use disorder received professional help.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warned that the rise in drug use “will require massive investment in health services and the expansion of prevention programmes.”

According to the report, opiate use remains the largest drug-related burden of disease. The number of users worldwide has almost doubled in the last decade, with North America having the largest number.

In 2019, approximately 50,000 people will die from opioid overdoses in the US, more than double the number in 2010.

Impact of the COVID pandemic

The report notes that the COVID pandemic exacerbates the factors that fuel the vicious cycle of socioeconomic vulnerability and substance use disorders, adding that poverty, conflict and limited education fuel substance use during the pandemic.

By 2020, between 119 and 124 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty and 1.6 billion students will be affected by school closures.

The negative economic growth caused by the blockade and the pandemic has also led to an increase in global unemployment.

During the pandemic, there was an increase in cannabis use and non-medical use of drugs such as benzodiazepines in many countries, the report said.

In a survey of health professionals in 77 countries, 64 per cent reported non-medical use of tranquillisers and 42 per cent reported increased cannabis use during the pandemic.

Although drug markets in most parts of the world were temporarily disrupted during the first phase of the pandemic, they recovered quickly, according to the report.

The pandemic had triggered or accelerated some pre-existing dynamics of smuggling, such as increased transportation and use of land and water routes.

Online accessibility of drugs poses new challenges

The proliferation of the online drug market on social media and popular e-commerce platforms suggests that the accessibility of the dark web drug market is increasing, the report said.

The main dark web drug market is currently estimate to have an annual turnover of at least $315 million (€264 million).

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime notes that while this represents only a small fraction of total drug sales, the trend is upward, with annual sales quadrupling over the past decade.

Low-income countries are most at risk

The report finds that the increase in drug use is most pronounce in low-income countries.

By 2030, drug use is projected to increase by 43 percent in low-income countries, increase by 10 percent in middle-income countries and decrease by 1 per cent in high-income countries.

The number of drug users on the African continent is expect to increase by up to 40 percent over the next decade.

Cocaine purity on the rise in Europe

The report notes that the purity of cocaine available in Europe has increased by 40 % over the past decade, meaning that high-quality cocaine has become cheaper and therefore more readily available.

The cocaine trafficking route between South America and Europe is the second most important in the world (after the route between the Americas).

Most of the cocaine in Europe used to be import through well-established channels, mainly through Italian organized crime groups and alliances between Colombian and Spanish groups. Organizations originating in the Balkans are reportedly increasingly involved in trafficking and supply.

In 2019, a record amount of heroin was seize in Europe, tripling since 2016 and accounting for 27% of the global total.

Afghanistan experienced a boom in opium poppy production during the COVID pandemic. The country reported a 37 per cent year-on-year increase in the area used for illicit opium poppy cultivation in 2020. This is the third highest figure ever recorded in the country, which accounts for 85 per cent of total global opium production in 2020.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime called on countries around the world to strengthen international cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking.

“Law enforcement agencies working at key border points should exchange information and share knowledge on effective interdiction methods and best practices at regional and international levels,” the report said.

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