Illegal drug problem continues to grow, causing irreparable damage to society

The emergence of new synthetic opioids and a record supply and demand of other drugs has compounded the impacts of the world drug problem, leading to a rise in drug use disorders and environmental harms, stated the World Drug Report 2024 launched by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on June 26.

The harmful consequences of the illegal drug problem, starting from production, trafficking and abusing, are extensive and real. Criminal activities and the drug problem go hand in hand and transnational organized crime groups are usually involved. According to INTERPOL, drug trafficking is often associated with other forms of crime, such as money laundering or corruption, and trafficking routes are used by criminal networks to transport other illicit products including firearms, uncut diamonds and live pangolins, creating a convergence of crime.

As international borders become increasingly porous, abuse and accessibility to illegal drugs have become increasingly widespread. This global illegal trade involves growers, producers, transporters, suppliers and dealers. No country is spared from the scourge of the illegal drug trade because drug trafficking affects all parts of the world as either source, transit or destination regions, undermining political and economic stability, ruining the lives of individuals and damaging communities. The end-users and addicts are often the victims of powerful and manipulative organized crime groups.

Illegal drugs do not just affect the abusers’ mind and body, but also the people around them. Livelihoods are lost, relationships are destroyed, and those who grow up in the home environment of a drug abuser suffer. Taking illegal drugs is not just a personal choice, but affect the community at large too. 

“Drug production, trafficking, and use continue to exacerbate instability and inequality, while causing untold harm to people’s health, safety and well-being,” said Ghada Waly, executive director, UNODC. “We need to provide evidence-based treatment and support to all people affected by drug use, while targeting the illicit drug market and investing much more in prevention.”

The number of people who use drugs has risen to 292 million in 2022, a 20 percent increase over 10 years. Cannabis remains the most widely used drug worldwide (228 million users), followed by opioids (60 million users), amphetamines (30 million users), cocaine (23 million users), and ecstasy (20 million users).

Nitazenes, a group of synthetic opioids which can be even more potent than fentanyl, have recently emerged in several high-income countries, resulting in an increase in overdose deaths.  

Though an estimated 64 million people worldwide suffer from drug use disorders, only one in 11 is in treatment. Women receive less access to treatment than men, with only one in 18 women with drug use disorders in treatment versus one in seven men.

In 2022, an estimated seven million people were in formal contact with the police (arrests, cautions, warnings) for drug offences, with about two-thirds of this total due to drug use or possession for use. In addition, 2.7 million people were prosecuted for drug offences and over 1.6 million were convicted globally in 2022, though there are significant differences across regions regarding the criminal justice response to drug offences.

A new record high of 2,757 tons of cocaine was produced in 2022, a 20 per cent increase over 2021. Global cultivation of coca bush, meanwhile, rose 12 per cent between 2021 and 2022 to 355,000 hectares. The prolonged surge in cocaine supply and demand has coincided with a rise in violence in states along the supply chain, notably in Ecuador and Caribbean countries, and an increase in health harms in countries of destination, including in Western and Central Europe.

Golden Triangle: Drug trafficking empowers organized crime groups

In the Golden Triangle, the intertwined nature of the illegal drug economy, a growing array of socially and environmentally harmful illicit activities and armed conflicts, exacerbates human insecurity, destabilizes local communities and negatively affects fragile environments.

The Golden Triangle, spanning the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Thailand, is a hub for opium and synthetic drug production. Illegal opium production thrives due to the region’s favorable climate and geography. However, according to the World Drug Report 2024, opium’s dominance as the main source of illegal revenues has declined over the past 30 years as a result of internal conflicts and a shift towards synthetic drugs like methamphetamine. 

Methamphetamine is now the dominant drug according to seizure data, with seizures having grown fourfold between 2013 and 2022. Methamphetamine from the Golden Triangle now reaches markets across the region and elsewhere in Asia and Oceania. 

Be that as it may, taking advantage of limited governance, drug traffickers there are diversifying into other illegal activities, notably wildlife trafficking, illegal resource extraction, financial fraud, money-laundering and online scams, often using casinos and special economic zones to conceal their operations. Some of these criminal acts are also contributing to environmental degradation through deforestation, the dumping of toxic waste, and chemical contamination. 

Estimates of waste from illegal manufacture of methamphetamine alone could amount to 1,900 to 3,800 metric tons annually in recent years. The chemicals in the waste can harm the environment, especially in the immediate area where production occurs, but also other environments if they are discharged into waterways or incinerated, posing significant threats to local ecosystems and communities.

Conflict-driven displacement and rural poverty contribute to illicit activities. Displaced, poor, and migrant communities are suffering, sometimes forced to turn to opium farming or illegal resource extraction to survive, falling into debt entrapment with crime groups, or using drugs themselves.

The cultivation of opium poppy creates economic dependency, trapping rural communities in cycles of debt and making them vulnerable to exploitation. Methamphetamine use perpetuates exploitation and health risks, while mining and logging camps foster drug consumption, human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

The drug traffickers are also collaborating with ethnic armed groups, sometimes out of strategic, political or financial needs. The armed groups often coerce or co-opt State apparatuses, deepening the cycle of exploitation. Ongoing political instability and corruption, particularly in Shan State in Myanmar, exacerbate the situation, undermining governance, security and environmental stability.

Photo credit: Pexels/ Karolina Kaboompics

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