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UN Drug Report: America Still Loves Weed While the World Is Hooked on Pills

Globally between 28.6 and 38 million people use opioids, in the form of painkillers with brand names such as OxyContin and Vicodin.
Photo by Brett Levin

Prescription drugs and heroin are gaining in popularity worldwide compared with marijuana which is waning, according to the United Nations World Drug Report.

Marijuana, which has been declining popularity since 2009 — except in the US, where more people are smoking more weed — has given way to an increase in the demand for prescription drugs, though not everywhere. The US still loves weed and pills, according to the report.


Globally between 28.6 and 38 million people use opioids, in the form of painkillers with brand names such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Astramorph — to name a few — as well as heroin. Opioid use has increased by nearly 10 percent since 2009.

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The increase in opioids is linked to street availability of prescription drugs driven by increased demand in more affluent countries. The US and New Zealand are two countries with major pill consumption increases, although there are other factors such as shifting heroin supply routes.

Iran and China, for example, are using more heroin, according to the report. European consumption is also affected by changes in heroin supply routes — heroin remains a popular drug east and west of Cold War lines.

Asia and Africa also contributed to the uptick in opioid use, although stats were difficult for the UN to obtain. But, after talking with experts, the world body concluded that there was sufficient evidence to call an Asian increase “perceived.”

And in Nigeria, for example, use of prescription painkillers is reported at about 3.6 percent of the population.

But there are consequences. A total of 43,000 deaths were reportedly caused by opioid dependence in 2010. Based on the information of each death, it’s likely that opioid users are more likely to die 46 years earlier than non-users.


Opium poppy production, one of the natural ingredients used to produce heroin, also has increased over the last two decades.

In 2013, the UN about estimated that producers were employing about 1,145 square miles to cultivate the poppy. About 80 percent of that is concentrated in Afghanistan, with the remaining 20 divided between Myanmar, Lao and the rest of the globe.

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Although the number of opioid users remains lower than those who enjoy marijuana — the total number of marijuana users globally, somewhere between 125 and 227 million — the global prevalence of bud use is trending down.

That’s largely because of declining consumption in Central and Western European countries — including many nations with long-standing cannabis use.

Americans Love Their Weed
Americans, on the other hand, are smoking more weed, along with a handful of other countries like Uruguay. The reason: people are starting to think that it’s less risky than other drugs — a notion the UN went to great lengths debunk.

"Medical research tell us clearly that the use of cannabis, particularly at early ages, can be very harmful for the health," UN Office on Drugs and Crime chief researcher Angela Me explained, Reuters reported.

Relying on emergency room visits as a barometer, the drug report says that there has been a 59 percent increase in emergency room visits between 2006 and 2010, and a 14 percent increase in weed related treatment admissions.


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That might be because American marijuana is strong.

A Mississippi project that monitors tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels in crops seized or eradicated by the feds. In four years, between 2007 and 2011 THC levels increased from 8.7 to 11.9 percent in the herb.

And with medical legalization in over 20 states, and recreational weed available in Colorado and Washington, it’s damn likely American marijuana is going to get stronger.

Interestingly, the UN doesn’t think that Colorado and Washington states’ recent legalization is much of a contributing factor — in fact, the world body thinks that it’s too early to understand what recreational legalization will mean for health care, law enforcement, and taxes.

As with all illegal narcotic production and consumption statistics are notoriously difficult to accurately assess.

Not only do government bodies often produce information about drug markets to support policy objectives, and messages, but because consumption and production of street drugs are illegal, precise statistical information is nearly impossible to obtain, according to drug historian Paul Gootenberg.

The UN report is also based on hundreds of data sources from across the globe, that often use differing methods and techniques to collect information on black markets. In many cases, the world body admitted that sources of information were few, or unavailable altogether.

Regardless, the world body’s global drug report is one of the only semi-accurate gauge of major trends in popular narcotics, otherwise incredibly difficult, if not impossible to document reliably.

Photo via Flickr