United Nations on Drug Reform – All Talk, No Action

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has released its annual World Drug Report, with mixed results in the area of drug use and trafficking.

Overall, the UN estimates that 1 in 20 adults worldwide used an illicit drug in 2014, a figure which has remained steady over the past four years.

The bad news is that the number of people suffering from drug-use disorders has increased, hitting a record 29 million in 2014. According to the report, the health costs are particularly concerning as an estimated 12 million people are injecting drugs, with 14% living with HIV.

New Trends

UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov outlined a number of further concerns, including:

“the disastrous resurgence of heroin in some regions; the use of the ‘Darknet’ for drug trafficking; the appalling loss of life due to overdoses, and the disproportionate impact illicit drugs have on women, among many others challenges.”

The Report found that the proliferation of anonymous online marketplaces is playing a key role in drug trafficking. It pointed out that:

“Monica Barratt, a researcher from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW Australia… [found that] 8,058 GDS respondents out of 101,313 (8 percent) said they had used the dark web to source drugs. That’s up from around 5,000 in 2015, and 2,000 in 2014”.

Drug Use by Gender

The Report found that men are three times more likely than women to use cannabis, cocaine or amphetamines, while women are more likely to take opioids and tranquilizers for non-medical purposes.
This disparity is believed to be linked to increased opportunities for men to access drugs in their social environment.

The Report further found that the impact of drug use was greater on women because they difficulty accessing treatment facilities for their issues.

Spike in Heroin

Consistent with other studies, the Report found that North America has seen increase in both heroin use, and heroin-related deaths.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary reports that the number of heroin users has been rising rapidly — there were 435,000 heroin users in 2014, a three-fold increase on 2007.

During the same period, the number of overdose deaths involving heroin jumped from 3,036 in 2010, to 10,574 in 2014.

Synthetic Drugs

The Report also found an increased use in synthetic drugs, which is again consistent with other recent studies.

Joseph J. Palamar, an Assistant Professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, tested hair samples from people outside clubs and festivals in New York, finding that four out of 10 people who reported only taking ‘ecstacy’ also came up positive for bath salts (a lab-created drug chemically similar to cathinone, a stimulant).

A separate European Report unearthed 101 new street drugs in 2014 alone. Most were synthetic cannabinoids, but there were also a number of variations of synthetic bath salts, known on the street as ‘flakka’.

UN Response

The Report is heavy on data but disappointingly light on solutions.

Rather than making solid recommendations for addressing drug issues and devising a plan for reform, the UN Secretary-General has called for “a global response that is simultaneously effective, compassionate and humane”.

Ineffectiveness of UNGASS

The Report follows the recent UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), which was heavily criticised for failing to condemn the “war on drugs” and neglecting to propose a pathway towards drug reform.

In the lead-up to UNGASS, drug reformists were hopeful the UN would urge member states to decriminalise small drug possession, and make recommendations addressing the collateral damage cause by the drug war. Indeed, the conference was brought forward from 2019 following pleas by the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico; nations that are heavily affected by prohibitionist policies.

However, the conference saw representatives of member states rambling on about problems, facts and figures with little guidance or direction being provided by UN heads or mediators, and no recommendations for reform.

Drug reformists argue that, until the UN takes a firmer leadership role which recognises current policy failures and recommends pathways to reform, little will change on a global scale.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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