UN reports vastly higher opioid usage, record cocaine production

Albert Otti

Vienna – The global number of people who take opioids is 56 % higher than previously estimated, while cocaine production has jumped to a new record, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said Wednesday.

Containers depicting OxyContin prescription pill bottles rest on the ground as protesters demonstrate against the FDA's opioid prescription drug approval practices, Friday, April 5, 2019, in front of the Department of Health and Human Services' headquarters in Washington.

The number of opioid users was revised to 53 million people because of the results of large surveys that were carried out in India and Nigeria, which are among the world’s largest countries, the Vienna-based agency said in its annual report.

With a clearer picture on these two countries, the UNODC also upgraded its global estimate for addicts and people who need drug treatment by 15%, to 35 million.

These new estimates are based on global data from 2017.

Opioids include natural opiates that are derived from poppy, like heroin, as well as synthetic opioids that are at the root of North America’s drug problem.

“Drug overdoses have really reached epidemic proportions in North America,” UNODC research chief Angela Me said at a press briefing ahead of the report’s publication.

More than 47,000 people died from lethal opioid doses in the United States in 2017, and nearly 4,000 people in Canada. The powerful analgesic fentanyl and similar substances are the main killers among drug users in this region.

While this epidemic has received public attention in recent years, Me pointed out that there is another opioid crisis unfolding in African and Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Nigeria and Ghana, where abuse of the pain medication Tramadol has emerged as a problem.

The 2017 Nigerian survey showed that 4.7% of the population had taken Tramadol for non-medical purposes at least once in the previous year.

The substance is popular because it not only has a calming effect, but also works as a stimulant at certain dosage levels.

Global cultivation of opium poppy, the raw material for heroin, fell 17% to 346,000 hectares in 2018 as a drought hit Afghanistan, the world’s biggest opium producer.

The UNODC also reported that cocaine production rose by 25% to reach a record 1,976 tons in 2017 – the latest year for which figures are available – because of increasing coca leaf cultivation in Colombia.

Although the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has curbed coca farming in formerly rebel-controlled central parts of the country, criminal groups have started cultivation in remote areas, according to the U.N. report.

As cocaine supply is rising, the UNODC has detected increased use in the United States, as well as signs that more cocaine is reaching Europe and Asia.

The U.N. drug agency said it is also concerned about methamphetamine trends in Asia and North America.

Authorities in East and South-East Asia seized 116 tons of this stimulant drug in 2018, a sharp increase from 82 tons in the previous year.

“South-East Asia emerges as the world’s fastest-growing methamphetamine market,” the report said, noting that production has recently shifted from China to other Asian countries.

In the U.S., lethal overdoses from stimulants such as methamphetamine have risen from 1,300 to more than 10,000 annual cases between 2007 and 2017.