Text by By Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo: Unsplash/Wesley Gibbs
Statistics don’t lie. Around 275 million people around the world used illicit drugs worldwide in the last year of unprecedented upheaval caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, up by 22% from 2010. That’s according to the latest annual report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The World Drug Report 2021 said roughly 200 million people used marijuana – also known as cannabis – in 2019, representing 4% of the global population. “The number of cannabis users has increased by nearly 18% over the past decade,” the report said, adding that the percentage of adolescents who perceived the drug as harmful fell by as much as 40%.
“This perception gap prevails despite evidence that cannabis use is associated with a variety of health and other harms, especially among regular long-term users,” the report stated. “Moreover, most countries have reported a rise in the use of cannabis during the pandemic.”
This has alarmed UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly. “Lower perception of drug use risks has been linked to higher rates of drug use, and the findings of the report highlight the need to close the gap between perception and reality to educate young people and safeguard public health,” she deplored.
On the other hand, an estimated 20 million people used cocaine in 2019, corresponding to 0.4% of the global population. In the United States, roughly 50,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2019, more than double the 2010 figure.
A United Nations study showed that cocaine and opium production worldwide hit “absolute record highs.” This is a “major threat to public health,” it said.
“The world’s drug problem remains an urgent challenge that threatens to exacerbate COVID-19 pandemic impacts and hinder a healthy and inclusive recovery,” pointed out United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In a statement issued during the observation of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking last June 26, Guterres underscored that trusting science is the “hero and lesson of the pandemic,” and the same action based on evidence is crucial for the responses to drugs.
Figures from the World Drug Report showed that drug-related deaths have nearly doubled over the past decade. Moreover, 10% of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) cases in 2019 were due to people injecting themselves with harmful substances.
Rising unemployment and plummeting opportunities are expected to disproportionately affect the poorest, making them more vulnerable to drug use, trafficking and cultivation, to earn money so they can survive the global recession caused by COVID-19.
According to UNODC, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed more than 100 million people into extreme poverty and has greatly exacerbated unemployment and inequalities, as the world lost 255 million jobs in 2020.
Mental health conditions are also on the rise worldwide. These factors have the potential to spur a rise in drug use disorders.
“The COVID-19 crisis and economic downturn threaten to compound drug dangers further still, when our health and social systems have been brought to the brink and our societies are struggling to cope,” Waly said.
Dark web drug sales continue to rise. During the pandemic, “access to drugs has also become simpler than ever with online sales, and major drug markets on the dark web are now worth some $315 million annually,” UNODC said.
Contactless drug transactions, such as through the mail, are also on the rise, a trend possibly accelerated by the pandemic. “Rapid technological innovation, combined with agility and adaptability of drug traffickers who are using new online platforms to sell drugs and other substances, are likely to increase the availability of illicit drugs,” UNODC said.
“Drug costs lives,” Waly said. “In an age when the speed of information can often outstrip the speed of verification, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that it is crucial to cut through the noise and focus on facts, a lesson that we must need in order to protect societies from the impact of drugs.”