Global Drug Use Situation: Overall Trends

The United Nations Office on Drug and Crime’s annual World Drug Report presents a comprehensive overview of the latest developments in drugs markets. It covers production, trafficking, consumption and the related health consequences. The 2013 report points out that drug use situation and dependence have remained relatively stable, with a slight increase to a large extent due to the growth of the world population. 

More specifically, heroin and cocaine seem to be declining in specific regions of the world, while prescription drugs and new psychoactive drugs are on the rise. Polydrug use, especially the combination of prescription drugs and illicit substances is a major concern.

In 2011, the number of drug-related deaths was estimated at 211,000. Most of those deaths were among the younger population of users and were, to a large extent, preventable. Opioids remained the most commonly reported group of substances involved in drug-related deaths. There continues to be a major gap in the delivery of treatment services for drug dependence: only an estimated one in six problem drug users had received treatment in the preceding year.

Prevalence of HIV among people who inject drugs Prevalence of people who inject drugs among the general population

Injected Drugs

The prevalence of people who inject drugs and are also living with HIV in 2011 was lower than previously estimated: 14.0 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 are estimated to be injecting drugs (being 12 per cent lower than the previous estimation), while 1.6 million people who inject drugs are also living with HIV (decreasing by 46 per cent). 

OpioidsOpioids – Opioid use (prescription opioids, heroin and opium) has gone up in parts of Asia (and Africa since 2009. Use of opiates (heroin and opium), on the other hand, remains stable (around 16.5 million people, or 0.4 per cent of the population aged 15-64), although a high prevalence for opiate use has been reported from South-West and Central Asia, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and North America. In Europe specifically, there are indications that heroin use is declining, due to a number of factors, including an aging user population in treatment and increased interdiction of supply. 

CocaineCocaine  Cocaine use seems to have stabilized in Europe and declined in North America, whereas these regions used to dominate the market not so long ago. Today, they account for approximately one half of users globally. On the other hand, cocaine use seems to have expanded  dramatically in regions where prevalence rates were formerly low, e.g. Asia, Oceania, Central and South America and the Caribbean. 

ATSAmphetamine-type stimulants – The use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), excluding ecstasy, remains widespread globally and appears to be increasing in most regions. In 2011, an estimated 0.7 per cent of the global population aged 15-64, or 33.8 million people, had used ATS in the preceding year. The prevalence of ecstasy in 2011 (19 million, or 0.4 per cent of the population) was lower than in 2009.  Methamphetamine continues to dominate the ATS business, accounting for 71 per cent of global ATS seizures in 2011. 

CannabisCannabis – Cannabis remains the most widely used illicit substance. Whereas cannabis use has clearly declined among young people in Europe over the past decade, there was a minor increase in the prevalence of cannabis users (180 million or 3.9 per cent of the population age 15-64) as compared with previous estimates in 2009. 

New psychoactive substancesNew psychoactive substances – Marketed as 'legal highs' and 'designer drugs', NPS are proliferating at an unprecedented rate and posing unforeseen public health challenges. The number of NPS reported by Member States to UNODC rose from 166 at the end of 2009 to 251 by mid-2012, an increase of more than 50 per cent. For the first time, the number of NPS exceeded the total number of substances under international control (234). This is an alarming drug problem – but the drugs are legal. Sold openly, including via the internet, NPS, which have not been tested for safety, can be far more dangerous than traditional drugs. 

NPS seem to constitute a significant market segment already. Close to 5 per cent of people aged 15-24 have already experimented with NPS in the European Union, which is equivalent to one-fifth of the numbers who have tried cannabis and close to around half of the number who have used drugs other than cannabis. While cannabis use has clearly declined among adolescents and young people in Europe over the past decade, and the use of drugs other than cannabis has remained largely stable, the use of NPS has gone up.