from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Half-Baked: The UN’s Annual Global Drug Report

June 24, 2011

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Drug addicts in Managua, Nicaragua (Oswaldo Rivas/ Courtesy Reuters).

On Thursday, the United Nations launched its annual World Drug Report. This year’s report comes four decades after President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” and fifty years since the United Nations established an Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to guide international policing of the drug trade.

The report highlights several important new trends in the international drug market. Understanding these trends will be vital for fighting the global drug trade, and addressing its spillover consequences.

Beyond killing over 200,000 people annually, the global drug trade bolsters corruption, entrenches organized crime, and enables terrorism around the globe. It undermines good governance, increases violence and political instability, and leads to carnage—like the extraordinary violence raging in Mexico.

Globally, illegal drug use appears to have stabilized. Approximately 210 million people, and 4.8 percent of the world’s population aged fifteen to sixty-four, used illicit substances in 2010, according to UNODC. Perhaps twenty-seven million of these fall into the category of “problem” users.

Heroin continues to ravage Russian society, prompting Moscow to potentially raise the issue of Afghan drugs to the UN Security Council as a threat to international peace and security. To meet growing European demand for cocaine South American narcotraffickers have turned West Africa into a major transit hub, undermining governance and security in already weak states (which I document in my new book Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.) At the same time, demand is soaring for new, synthetic psychotropic substances not yet under international control, including piperazine and cathinone.

A few highlights from the World Drug Report regarding better-known drugs:

  • A Slight Dip in Cocaine. Global coca cultivation has declined, thanks to an 18 percent reduction in Colombia since 2007 (offset only slightly by small increases in Peru and Bolivia). The United States remains the world’s biggest consumer of cocaine with consumption totaling $37 billion annually, despite slackening demand. Across the Atlantic, consumption is rising and the European market has swelled to $36 billion.
  • Steady Opium Production. In 2010, Afghanistan remained the overwhelming source of the world’s opium—disturbing after nearly ten years of U.S. and NATO presence there. For 2011, Russia’s Federal Service for Drug Control predicts “another record-breaking opium harvest” in Afghanistan. Although blight reduced the Afghan harvest in 2010, Burmese cultivation surged to make up the difference, rising from 5 to 12 percent of global production.
  • Pot remains the world’s drug of choice. Cannabis is by far the most widely produced and consumed illicit substance in the world. While marijuana production is widespread, notably in the Americas and Africa, cannabis resin production (hashish) continues to be concentrated in just two countries: Morocco, supplying Western Europe and North Africa; and Afghanistan, which supplies Southwest Asia. Given all the attention to Afghan heroin, it is shocking to learn that cannabis resin was a far more profitable crop than opium poppy in 2010 in Afghanistan.
  • Soaring production and trafficking in synthetic drugs. Over the past two decades, synthetic drugs have transformed  the landscape of illicit narcotics. These include amphetamine-type stimulants, and more recently synthetic cannabinoids (or “spice”) which mimic the psychotropic effects of marijuana. “The gains we have witnessed in the traditional drugs markets are being offset by a fashion for synthetic ’designer drugs’ mimicking illegal substances," says UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov.

A few caveats

UNODC’s figures need to treated with caution, as solid data on underground markets is hard to come by—after all, narcotraffickers do not publish quarterly reports for shareholders. UNODC figures are approximations, based on statistical estimation techniques and, when it comes to opium and coca, aerial surveys. Drug markets are also evolving, and increasingly include the abuse of designer drugs or prescription medicines, making it difficult to track fast-growing new markets

Furthermore, UNODC compiles data from informal sources and selective information provided by governments. Global coverage is uneven and the process creates ample opportunities for political manipulation or withholding of data.

The politicization of drug data is hardly limited to UNODC, of course. The State Department’s own International Country Narcotics Strategy Reports (INCSRs) are deeply influenced by diplomatic considerations. This is most obvious during the annual “certification” process when the president must assure Congress that each U.S. partner is fully committed to the “war on drugs”. The entire process has elements of kabuki theater, as I saw firsthand at the State Department several years ago: Friendly countries always seemed to receive leniency, while rogue states and U.S. antagonists got the scarlet letter: “failed demonstrably.”

Cause for reflection?

Fifty years into the global war on drugs, this year’s UNODC report paints a bleak picture. Drugs remain a global scourge with dangerous implications, and this year’s statistics show little reason for optimism. Even seemingly effective efforts to combat drugs can trigger unintended consequences. Too often, success in one region prefigures failure in another—drug traffickers and producers are resilient and mobile, demonstrating time and again their ability to find gaps in the international anti-drug regime.

While the World Drug Report shed important light on production and consumption patterns, it ignored some fundamental issues. Left undiscussed, for instance, was the larger question of whether the colossally expensive, global “war” on drugs is a productive approach. As Ethan Nadelman and many others have pointed out, a perverse consequence of global prohibition regimes is to artificially inflate profit margins— and incentives— to produce or traffic illicit commodities. Nor did the report signal any serious re-thinking of the dominant “source control” approach to curtailing illicit drugs. Rather than just documenting bad news, perhaps it is time for UNODC to revisit the assumptions undergirding the international community’s anti-drug strategy.

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