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The UN sounds the alarm: Record-high production of opium and cocaine


Noorullah Shirzada | AFP

Paul De Maeyer - published on 07/11/18

It also warns about the non-medical use of prescription medications.

In its latest report, published on Tuesday, June 26, on the occasion of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, under the title World Drug Report 2018, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calls attention to record levels of opium and cocaine production worldwide.

According to the UN agency, which has its headquarters in Vienna (Austria), the production of the two well-known narcotics reached, in 2016, a historic high.


From 2016 to 2017, the production of opium jumped worldwide by 65 percent, reaching the amount of 10,500 tons. It’s the highest number since the agency first started to monitor the global production of opium at the beginning of the 21st century, the report emphasizes.

The number one producer of this drug, which is made from the mature seed pod of the poppy (Papaver somniferum L.), is Afghanistan, where last year the yield reached a total of 9,000 tons, an 87 percent increase compared to the previous year. According to the report, this means that from 2016 to 2017 the total land area dedicated to opium poppy cultivation increased worldwide by 37 percent, reaching nearly 420,000 hectares, of which more than three quarters are in that Central Asian country.

From 2015 to to 2016, overall seizures of opiates increased by nearly 50 percent, the UNODC report continues. The amount of heroin seized worldwide reached the record amount of 91 tons in 2016. The majority of seizures took place near the manufacturing hubs in Afghanistan.


During 2016, the global production of cocaine reached a historic high of approximately 1,410 tons. From 2005 to 2013, cocaine production had fallen; then, from 2013 to 2016, it increased again, by a total of 56 percent, with a 25 percent jump just in the period from 2015 to 2016.

With a production of 866 tons, the primary producer of cocaine in the world is Colombia. From 2015 to 2016, the South American country increased its production by more than a third. In 2016, the total land area worldwide under coca bush cultivation reached 213,000 hectares, of which more than two thirds — nearly 69 percent — are in Colombia.

One of the factors that explains the increase of Colombian production, according the UN report, is the fact that the country dialed down its efforts to eradicate coca bush cultivation. While in 2006 more than 213,000 hectares were eradicated, in 2016 this number dropped drastically to fewer than 18,000 hectares.

According to the UNODC, the record production of opium in Afghanistan and of cocaine in Colombia constitutes a threat for the security of the two countries. In Afghanistan, the report explains, the profits generated from opium cultivation “are likely to further fuel instability and increase funding to terrorist groups both inside and outside the country.”

Regarding the seizure of cocaine, the volume tripled in Asia from 2015 to 2016, while in South Asia, it increased tenfold. In Africa, the quantity of cocaine seized doubled in 2016, and even increased sixfold in North African countries.

The non-medical use of prescription drugs

In its report, the United Nations agency also expresses concern regarding the non-medical consumption of prescription drugs (NMUPD), which in some parts of the globe has reached “epidemic proportions.”

In North America, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller nearly 100 times stronger than morphine, obtained illegally and mixed with heroin or other drugs, is behind an unprecedented spike in the number of overdose deaths.

The number of 63,632 fatalities in the United States of America in 2016 constitutes not only an increase of 21 percent with respect to 2015; it is the largest number ever recorded in that country. Fentanyl and its analogues were implicated in some 19,413 of these deaths—more than twice the amount in comparison with the previous year. More than 10,000 cocaine-related deaths were recorded in 2016, more than twice the number in 2013, when it was less than 5,000.

While outside of the United States the impact of fentanyl and its analogues remains relatively low, in some Western countries the abuse of non-controlled benzodiazepines is increasing, according to the report.

In West and North Africa, and in the Near and Middle East, the non-medical use of tramadol, a synthetic opioid analgesic that is not under international control, is increasing instead.

The use of tramadol, also known in some places as the “combatant’s drug,” is “increasing rapidly,” especially among some vulnerable populations. The molecule is able to rapidly increase a person’s energy and improve their mood, but it can also lead to physical dependence, the UN report warns. The majority of the tramadol seized from 2012 to 2016 most likely came from clandestine laboratories in Asia.


Cannabis was the drug most commonly used in 2016. About 192 million people used cannabis at least once last year, according to the World Drug Report 2018.

While the global number of cannabis consumers continues to grow, the amount of cannabis seized has decreased worldwide by 27 percent in 2016, to 4,386 tons. The drop was particularly clear in the United States, perhaps also because the recreational use of cannabis has been legalized in several states and in the District of Columbia.

Young people, women, and older consumers

Regarding the consumption of stupefacients, the report observes that among young people there are two “extreme typologies.” On one hand, the document says, there are the so-called “club drugs,” widespread among youth in high-income countries, such as “ecstasy,” methamphetamine, and GHB (also known as the “date rape” drug); on the other hand, there are drugs used by the poor—substances used by people living on the street. They are volatile (and dangerous) chemicals, called inhalants, such as glue, paint thinner, benzine, and spray paint.

Many risks are tied to the use of stupefacients by young people. Their consumption during adolescence increases “the likelihood of unemployment, physical health problems, dysfunctional social relationships, suicidal tendencies, mental illness, and even lower life expectancy,” the UNODC report warns.

Another threat that hangs over young people is organized crime, which for two motives tends to recruit children and young adults for selling drugs. The first motive is “the recklessness” typical of youth, “even when faced with the police or rival gangs; the second is their obedience.”

Drug traffickers also set their sights on another category of person: women. As compared to men, women tend to accept being paid less, which explains why some organized crime rings involved in drug trafficking are more inclined to use or take advantage of women as carriers, or “mules.”

Also, a greater proportion of women than men who are behind bars are there for drug-related crimes. Of 714,000 female prisoners, 35 percent are in jail for drug-related offenses. Of the nearly 9.6 million male prisoners, by contrast, “only” 19 percent are behind bars for this type of crime, the UN report reveals.

The report, released last June 26, also notes that although women generally start using drugs later than men, once they do begin, they tend to increase their consumption of alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids more rapidly than men.

One third of drug users worldwide are women, and they constitute one fifth of the global number of so-called PWID (Persons Who Inject Drugs), even though they are more susceptible than men to contracting diseases such as HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne infections.

The report also calls attention to another category of drug users: older people. People who began to use stupefacients when they were younger are, indeed, more likely to continue consuming them when they are older.

This is confirmed by the fact that the proportion of opioid users who enter treatment has increased among people older than 40, from one in five in 2006 to one out in three in 2013, but it is dropping among people under 40 years of age. The same holds true for deaths by overdose: in the period from 2006 to 2013, they declined among people under 40 years of age, but increased among those over 40.

Although “older drug users many have multiple physical and mental health problems,” a fact that makes drug treatment “more challenging,” they have until now received little attention, the UNODC report explains.

In 2010, the document says, there was a lack of European anti-drug strategies with explicit references to older drug addicts, and there are few treatment plans for this category of drug user. “Most initiatives are directed towards young people,” the report goes on to say.

At the conclusion of this brief and merely partial overview of the report, we can quote the words of the executive director of the UNODC, Yuri Fedotov, who, in a press release, defined the document prepared by his agency as “a key pillar of our support, along with assistance to translate international obligations into action and capacity building on the ground to enable effective responses, and protect the health and welfare of humankind.”

Health and WellnessMental Health
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