UN World Drug Report Shows Cannabis Use and Acceptance Continues to Grow

smoking, cannabis use
Photo by Dan Skye

The 2016 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) released yesterday, shortly after April’s UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem, provides a global overview of the supply and demand of opiates, cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants and new psychoactive substances, as well as their impact on health.

The report reviewed the treatment demand for cannabis and developments since the legalization of cannabis for recreational use in some parts of the world.

Cannabis remains the most commonly used drug at the global level, with an estimated 183 million people having used it in 2014. The report shows that with changing social norms towards cannabis—predominantly in the West—cannabis use has climbed, with higher acceptability towards usage. In many regions, however, more people have entered treatment for cannabis use disorders over the past decade.

The report notes that men are three times more likely than women to use cannabis, cocaine or amphetamines, whereas women are more likely than men to engage in the non-medical use of opioids and tranquilizers. Gender disparities can be attributed to the opportunity of drug use in a social environment, rather than gender being a factor determining drug use. Despite the fact that more men use drugs than women, the impact of drug use is greater on women than it is on men, because women tend to lack access to the continuum of care for drug use dependence. Within the family context, female partners and children of drug users are also more likely to be the victims of drug-related violence.

Around five per cent of the adult population, or nearly 250 million people between the ages of 15 and 64, used at least one drug in 2014. Although substantial, this figure has not grown over the past four years in proportion to the global population. The report, however, suggests that the number of people classified as suffering from drug use disorders has increased disproportionately for the first time in six years. There are now over 29 million people within this category (compared to the previous figure of 27 million).

Drug use and its health consequences

While drug-related mortality has remained stable around the world, in 2014 there were still around 207,000 deaths reported—an unacceptably high number of deaths which are preventable if adequate interventions are in place.

Heroin use, and related overdose deaths, appear to have increased sharply over the last two years in some countries in North America and Western and Central Europe. Underlining the significance of this, UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov noted that while the challenges posed by new psychoactive substances remain a serious concern, “Heroin continues to be the drug that kills the most people and this resurgence must be addressed urgently.”

Overall, opioids continue to pose the highest potential harm and health consequences among major drugs.

The world drug problem and cycle of poverty

The report highlights a strong link between poverty and several aspects of the drug problem. Indeed, the brunt of the drug use problem is borne by people who are poor, in relation to the societies in which they live, as can be seen in stark terms in wealthier countries. The strong association between social and economic disadvantage and drug use disorders can be seen when analyzing different aspects of marginalization and social exclusion, such as unemployment and low levels of education.

The report also sheds some light on the varied ways in which the world drug problem results in different manifestations of violence. While the intensity of drug-related violence is greatest when associated with drug trafficking and production, these do not necessarily produce violence, as illustrated by the low levels of homicide in transit countries affected by the opiate trafficking routes in Asia. The drug trade is generally seen to flourish where State presence is weak, where the rule of law is unevenly applied and where opportunities for corruption exist.

Additionally, the report studied the influence of the criminal justice system on drug trafficking and drug markets, as well as on drug use and people who use drugs. For example, it notes that globally 30 percent of the prison population is made up of un-sentenced or pre-trial prisoners.

Among convicted prisoners, 18 percent are in prison for drug-related offenses. The excessive use of imprisonment for drug-related offenses of a minor nature, is ineffective in reducing recidivism. It overburdens criminal justice systems, preventing them from efficiently coping with more serious crimes.

According to the report, provision of evidence-based treatment and care services to drug-using offenders, as an alternative to incarceration, has been proven to substantially increase recovery and reduce recidivism.

(Photo by Dan Skye)

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