Photo: Presentation of the UN World Drug Report 2022, with UNODC Research Officer Dr Thomas Pietschmann on the extreme right. Credit: UN Correspondents Association Vienna. - Photo: 2022

Conflict Zones as Magnets for Synthetic Drug Production

Growing Capacity to Manufacture Amphetamine in Ukraine

By Aurora Weiss

VIENNA (IDN) — Nearly 284 million people aged 15-64 used drugs worldwide in 2020, a 26 per cent increase over the previous decade. Young people are using more drugs, with use levels today in many countries higher than those of the previous generation, notes the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)‘s World Drug Report 2022.

Globally, the report estimates that 11.2 million people worldwide were injecting drugs. About half of them were living with hepatitis C, 1.4 million with HIV and 1.2 million with both.

UNODC Research Officer Dr Thomas Pietschmann from Austria and his team traditionally write up the UN World Drug Report. The data they collect provides him with a detailed, eagle-eye view of global patterns: how and where drugs are being produced, which the traffickers and consumers are, where the traffic networks are, and how drug production and consumption affect the environment.

IDN talked with Pietschmann. He said that there has been a rise in the production of cocaine and trafficking of cocaine both in the United States and Western Europe. Also, there is the ongoing production of opium. So, despite the area, the cultivation recorded a slight decline. Open production has, as such increased.

But this, he said, is interesting: “We could see a massive increase in traffic activities and in seizures in Afghanistan and the countries around Afghanistan, such as Pakistan and Iran. Then more or less it was stable in Turkey. But when it comes to South-eastern Europe and the Balkans, we could see this declined. Because of COVID-19, there was an evident decline in these activities. In Europe, there was significantly less trafficking and mobility because of the restrictions caused by COVID,” explains the UNODC Research Officer.

Dr Pietschmann added that synthetic drugs, especially methamphetamine, have increased dramatically, especially in North America, South-East and Southwest Asia.

In the two largest markets for methamphetamine, seizures have been rising. They increased by seven per cent in North America from the previous year. In contrast, South-East Asia increased by 30 per cent from the prior year, record highs in both regions. A record high was also reported for methamphetamine seizures in South-West Asia, rising by 50 per cent in 2020 from 2019. Great inequality remains in the availability of pharmaceutical opioids for medical consumption. In 2020, there were 7,500 more doses per 1 million inhabitants of controlled pain medication in North America than in West and Central Africa.

Cocaine manufacture was at a record high in 2020, growing 11 per cent from 2019 to 1,982 tons. Cocaine seizures also increased, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, to a record 1,424 tons in 2020. Nearly 90 per cent of cocaine seized globally in 2021 was trafficked in containers and by sea. Seizure data suggest that cocaine trafficking is expanding to other regions outside North America’s and Europe’s main markets, with increased levels of trafficking to Africa and Asia. 

Trafficking of methamphetamine continues to expand geographically, with 117 countries reporting seizures of methamphetamine in 2016‒2020 versus 84 in 2006‒2010. Meanwhile, the quantities of methamphetamine seized grew five-fold between 2010 and 2020.

According to the UNODC Research Officer, an interesting phenomenon is that the traffic generally does not flow as directly one might expect. It also goes to Europe indirectly. It’s exported from Lebanon, for instance, to Italy, Greece, France, and even Austria. And then back to the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Dr Pietschmann points out.

Opium production worldwide grew seven per cent between 2020 and 2021 to 7,930 tons—predominantly due to increased production in Afghanistan. However, the global area under opium poppy cultivation fell by 16 per cent to 246,800 ha in the same period.

In many countries in Africa and South and Central America, the most significant proportion of people in treatment for drug use disorders is there primarily for cannabis use disorders. In Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and Central Asia, people are most often treated for opioid use disorders.

In the United States, preliminary estimates refer to more than 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021, up from nearly 92,000 in 2020.

Conflict zones are magnets for synthetic drug production.

This year’s report also highlights that illicit drug economies can flourish in conflict situations and where the rule of law is weak, which can prolong or fuel conflict. Information from the Middle East and South-East Asia suggests that conflict situations can act as a magnet for manufacturing synthetic drugs, which can be produced anywhere. This effect may be more significant when the conflict area is close to large consumer markets.

“We have seen cases like this on models from Afghanistan with the Taliban, Colombia and FARC’s, Peru and the Shining Path, the civil war in Syria and the ethnic conflict in Myanmar,” adds the UNODC Research Office. For example, mainly from Syria and Myanmar, we have learned that conflicts are a magnet for attracting criminal activity, especially when it comes to synthetic drugs. What happened in Myanmar: the production of methamphetamine and exports to neighbouring countries, Dr Pietschmann recalls.

Historically, parties to the conflict have used drugs to finance conflict and generate income. The 2022 World Drug Report also reveals that disputes may disrupt and shift drug trafficking routes, as has happened in the Balkans and, more recently, in Ukraine.

An excellent example from the past is the war in Yugoslavia. Trade routes have been replaced with Bulgaria and Romania. When peace came, the route returned, and the Western Balkans became one of the main routes again, UNODC Research Officer Dr Pietschmann points out.

There was a significant increase in the number of reported clandestine laboratories in Ukraine, skyrocketing from 17 dismantled laboratories in 2019 to 79 in 2020. Sixty-seven of these laboratories were producing amphetamines, up from five in 2019 —the highest number of dismantled laboratories reported in any given country in 2020.

The environmental impacts of drug markets

According to the 2022 World Drug Report, illicit drug markets can have local, community or individual-level environmental impacts. A key finding is that the carbon footprint of indoor cannabis is between 16 and 100 times more than outdoor cannabis on average and that the footprint of 1 kilogram of cocaine is 30 times greater than that of cocoa beans.

Other environmental impacts include substantial deforestation associated with illicit coca cultivation, waste generated during synthetic drug manufacture that can be 5-30 times the volume of the end-product, and the dumping of waste which can affect soil, water and air directly, as well as organisms, animals and the food chain indirectly.

Women remain in the minority of drug users globally yet tend to increase their rate of drug consumption and progress to drug use disorders more rapidly than men do. Women now represent an estimated 45-49 per cent of users of amphetamines and non-medical users of pharmaceutical stimulants, opioids, sedatives, and tranquillizers.

The treatment gap remains large for women globally. Although women represent almost one in two amphetamine users, they constitute only one in five people in treatment for amphetamine use disorders. The World Drug Report 2022 also spotlights women’s wide range of roles in the global cocaine economy, including cultivating coca, transporting small quantities of drugs, selling to consumers, and smuggling into prisons. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 July 2022]

Photo: Presentation of the UN World Drug Report 2022, with UNODC Research Officer Dr Thomas Pietschmann on the extreme right. Credit: UN Correspondents Association Vienna.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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