Global drug abuse largely contained, experts say

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WASHINGTON – One war appears to be going well for the United States and its allies these days: the drug war.

The availability of all major illegal drugs except Afghan heroin is flat or down, according to newly released global figures. So is drug use in the United States, the world’s leading consumer. And drug seizures are up sharply.

No one’s saying the world’s drug problem is solved, only that it’s contained for now.

“We seem to have reached a point where the world drug situation has stabilized and been brought under control,” Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, based in Vienna, Austria, wrote in an analysis of world drug trends that was released last month.

Some experts chide Costa as reading too much into admittedly small fluctuations in short-term supply and ignoring grimmer long-term forecasts. But U.S. drug czar John Walters, the director of the White House Office of Narcotics and Drug Control Policy, shares his optimism.

After years of global criticism for its gluttonous appetite for drugs, Walters said in a recent interview, “The U.S. is now being looked on favorably as an example of declining use.”

By a traditional drug-war benchmark, the University of Michigan’s annual government-sponsored survey of U.S. teens, he’s right. It says that the use of any illicit drug within the past month dropped about 23 percent over the past five years. The study, which surveys eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders annually, often is used to predict future abuse rates.

Walters and U.N. drug-trend analyst Thomas Pietschmann, a co-author of the 2007 World Drug Report, give much of the credit to authorities in drug-producing countries such as Colombia, Morocco, Laos and Myanmar, who have cracked down on farmers and traffickers.


The countries’ motives differ. Colombia’s U.S.-aided crackdown sucked support from drug-funded rebels. Morocco’s followed European Union’s pressure. Laos’ and Myanmar’s dried up insurgencies and appeased neighboring China.

Walters and Pietschmann praise Mexico’s bloody efforts against its politically corrupting drug cartels, too. Also lauded: more generous intelligence sharing – mainly by the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom – with Mexico, Colombia and other drug-shipping countries.

The intelligence sharing is paying off in more seizures by more countries, said Vienna-based Pietschmann, especially when it comes to coca and cocaine.

While U.S. law enforcement did most of the seizing in the 1980s and 1990s, Latin America did nearly 60 percent of it in 2005, the latest year tallied. The leading interdicting countries were Colombia, the United States, Venezuela, Spain, Ecuador and Mexico, in that order.

Even in countries where supplies were up, as with coca in Bolivia and Peru, seizures offset the increases, Pietschmann said.

Overall, authorities seized 42 percent of total cocaine production before it reached consumers in 2005, according to the U.N. report. For heroin, the figure was 24 percent. In 1999, seizure rates were 24 percent for cocaine and 15 percent for heroin.

Cannabis’ availability is down, according to the study, and amphetamine-type stimulants have been stable for two years.

Pietschmann, who’s been analyzing world drug trends since 1993, said he’d seen favorable signs before, just never so many at once.

He sees warnings, too. Afghanistan’s opium crop last year was so big that it offset steep declines in Southeast Asian production, his report concluded. This year’s crop probably will exceed it, he predicted, bringing new waves of addiction to the country’s neighbors and to Europe, traditionally a leading customer for Afghan heroin.

Moreover, cocaine use, while down in the United States, is up in Europe, South America and Africa, and is likely to grow.

“There’s been almost no crack in Europe,” Peitschmann said, “so cocaine still has the benign image of a celebrity drug that it had in the U.S. in the “70s.”


The overall trends say more about market shifts than declines, said Thomas Babor, the associate editor in chief of the scholarly journal Addiction.

“I’m sure there’s been progress in different parts of the world,” he said. “But the U.N. seems to be seizing on some short-term trends in seizures and distribution. I don’t believe that drug-abuse rates are all that susceptible to drug interdiction or production shifts.”

According to Eric Sterling, the president of the Washington-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on drug laws and treatment for drug abuse, supply isn’t the crucial measure of success.

Rather, it’s public health. “Are we seeing reductions in overdose deaths?” he asked. “Or declines in the implication of drugs in HIV/AIDs?”

Sterling sees only “marginal change” in the current trend, given that “the fundamentals of the drug economy haven’t changed.”

Indeed, U.S. street prices for cocaine and heroin continue to be at or near all-time lows. In the past, low prices lured new users and started new and higher levels of abuse. Why not now?

Abuse researchers Peter Reuter and Jonathan Caulkins offered an interesting theory last fall in the online edition of Issues in Science and Technology, a policy journal.

Whatever the price of heroin or cocaine, they speculated, “once a drug has acquired a bad reputation, it does not seem prone to a renewed explosion or contagious spread in use.”

Overall, they’re optimistic. Drug abuse in the United States, they wrote, “is slowly ebbing down to a steady state that, depending on the measure one prefers, may be on the order of half its peak.”

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