Has the war on terror hurt the war on drugs?

New reports reveal that global demand for illegal substances is higher than ever despite actions to curb supply.

By Jason Burke
Published March 14, 2005 3:56PM (EST)

The global drug trade is booming, fueled by the demand from more than 200 million people worldwide who used illegal narcotics last year, new reports show. According to an as yet unpublished U.N. report, despite multibillion-dollar anti-drug measures that have restricted some supplies, the market is as insatiable as ever.

"We have shown that drugs control policies can work in terms of supply, but demand is a very different matter," a spokesperson from the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime told the Observer. A second new report, issued by the U.S. State Department, confirms the U.N. picture of a world using more drugs than ever. Though narcotic use has stabilized in North America, the world's biggest single market, it has boomed in Southeast Asia and Australasia, where use of amphetamine-type stimulants, many manufactured in China, has rocketed.

South America, Africa and the Caribbean have also seen serious drug problems emerging. In Europe, though the rapid rise of cocaine use has slowed, an estimated 5.3 percent of the population used cannabis in the past year and heroin and crack use is still increasing in many regions.

Antonio da Costa, director of the UNODC, said global demand reduction measures in recent years had been "lackluster [and] uninspiring." In 2001 the office estimated that around 180 million people used drugs in the world. The number is now thought to have increased more than 10 percent, to about 3.5 percent of the total global population.

The results will disappoint campaigners and administrators who have struggled for years against one of the world's biggest industries and will fuel fears that the "war on terror" has distracted from efforts to restrict the production and use of narcotics.

"There has been a lot of effort, but has the world suddenly said: 'Ooh, we don't like drugs'? No, nor is it likely to in the near future," said Harry Shapiro, of the British charity Drugscope. A UNODC spokesmen admitted that drugs had dropped down on the international agenda after 9/11 and the subsequent focus on radical Islam. "There is not the interest these days," the spokesperson said. "People seem to have dropped the ball."

One of the biggest problems has been the explosion of amphetamine-type drugs, especially in the Far East, where their use is becoming endemic. Such drugs are now a "global phenomenon," says Koli Kouame, of the International Narcotics Control Board, another U.N. body. "This is a very contagious phenomenon among the youth," Kouame said.

The American report shows that demand for drugs has increased in more than three-quarters of some 150 countries surveyed.

A number of countries have recorded surprising consumption levels -- Israelis are said to use 100 tons of marijuana, 20 tons of hashish, 20 million tablets of ecstasy, four tons of heroin, three tons of cocaine, and hundreds of thousands of LSD blotters annually.

In Lithuania, there has been a boom in abuse of methadone-type artificial heroin substitutes, while the number of registered heroin addicts in Belarus has doubled. In Finland and Estonia, surveys show an increasing appetite among young people for amphetamine-type stimulants. There have even been drug busts in Iraq -- where traffickers have taken advantage of post-invasion chaos to traffic hashish -- and in Syria.

"It just goes to show that whatever the penalties -- hanging, imprisonment, chopping off hands -- there will always be someone who is prepared to traffic, distribute or use drugs," said Shapiro.

Robert Charles, the American official in charge of Washington's fight against drugs, has been keen to stress the positive. "The metrics, I think, are beginning to bear out a degree of real success in counter-narcotics and money laundering," Charles said last week. "Winning the drug war does not mean that we sort of roll up all bad guys and all future bad guys and ... go home and do something else. It means that we make steady progress in reducing these threats to our security." The major achievements, according to Charles, are significant reductions in cocaine production in South America, especially in Colombia, and of opium in the Far East.

However, all drugs experts agree that the massive opium harvests in Afghanistan dominate the landscape. The UNODC hopes that the sheer size of last year's crop -- 4,200 tons -- will mean less being planted in coming years, as a glut brings down prices. However, the cheap drugs are already having an impact. According to da Costa, 30 countries reported a rise in heroin use since 2003, 25 were stable and only 18 reported a decrease.

Jason Burke

Jason Burke has covered the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden from day one. He writes for the Observer, a British newspaper.

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