New UN Drug Report Highlights Treatment Problems for Addicts

A new report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime highlights the worldwide problem of addiction, especially in trouble spots such as Africa.   Not only is global poppy production at its highest level since the late 1930s, but drug-related deaths are steadily increasing as well (187,100 drug-related deaths in 2013 alone).    Africa in particular was identified as a grave concern considering the region has become a key transit area for drug trafficking routes and the lower prices of various illegal drugs makes them more affordable than ever.

Unfortunately,  addictions treatment is still not available for most addicts.  Only one in six problem addicts worldwide actually have access to treatment.   Even in industrialized countries, most addictions treatment programs have long waiting lists that can delay treatment for months, if not years. 

Health issues relating to substance abuse, including HIV/AIDS show little change from previous years despite public health initiatives designed to educate intravenous drug users.   In 2013, 246 million people between the ages of 15 to 64 reported using illegal drugs.   More than one in ten of these drug users suffers from drug dependence.   According to the report, this works out to 27 million addicts, equal to the population of Malaysia.   Almost half of these addicts inject drugs and an estimated 1.65 million of these are HIV positive.  

Though heroin and opium use remains relatively stable, much of the increase in drug use comes from the rising popularity of cannabis and cannabis-based products.   Cocaine use has actually declined in recent years though it's likely too soon to determine whether this will be a continuing trend.   Non-prescription use of opioid-based painkillers are also becoming increasingly common though this is changing from region to region.  Drug use in prison is also a continuing problem, especially due to needle sharing under unsafe conditions.   Blood borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS continue to spread behind bars.  We are also seeing greater use of newer drugs such as mephedrone though, again, this varies across different regions. 

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution for dealing with substance abuse worldwide.  Even drug addicts who are successfully treated remain vulnerable to health problems for rest of their lives.  Women addicts seem to face additional barriers to treatment.   While one out of three drug users worldwide is a woman, only one in five addicts actually receiving treatment is female.  There also seem to be significant differences between men and women in terms of the drugs they take.  Men are more likely to use cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamines and women are more likely to abuse prescription opioids and tranquilizers.   Women who inject drugs also appear to be more vulnerable to HIV than men.  

Of all the negative consequences of drug use, fatal overdoses are the most severe.  According to the statistics provided in the report, the overwhelming majority of overdose deaths involve opioid use.   Most drug deaths occur in North America with the United States having one of the highest drug mortality rates worldwide (4.6 times the global average in 2013 alone.)   This higher rate may reflect better health monitoring rather than increased use and also suggests that the actual rate of drug deaths worldwide is likely underreported.

Part of the problem with policing drug use worldwide is the widespread cultivation of opium and coca in countries such as Columbia and Afghanistan.  The drug trade provides an enormous profit for many countries and illegal organizations which makes compliance to drug laws next to impossible.  While the U.N. report also describes initiatives encouraging farmers to grow alternative crops, progress remains slow.

For now,  making drug treatment available worldwide remains the best option for helping addicts, especially women addicts, get the help they need.   Until that happens, the War on Drugs will continue to inflict casualties.

For the report  (PDF)




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