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Connolly, Johnny and Donovan, Anne Marie (2009) A report on global illicit drug markets. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 30, Summer 2009, pp. 23-24.

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One of the most comprehensive reports on the global illicit drug market was recently published by the European Commission. The report was researched and written by an international team of experts and timed to coincide with and inform the 2009 session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.1Specifically, the study sought to determine whether progress had been made in relation to the UN General Assembly (UNGASS 98) declaration and action plans aimed at rolling back drug abuse and trafficking worldwide.

 Data were collected from 18 countries, including western, developing and so-called transitional states. The study employed a largely economic approach and looked at the drugs issue as if it were a licit market. It concludes, rather pessimistically, that 'the relationship between drug policy and changes for the better in drug use or drug problems is marginal at best. The strongest evidence for this conclusion is the marked similarity in drug trends in countries with very different drug policies' (p. 21).
 As well as the main report Assessing changes in global drug problems 1998-2007, the work contains six sub-reports and 18 country reports.2 The sub-reports cover the following topics:
  • The operation of the global drug market
  • Estimating the size of the global market: a demand-side approach
  • Issues in estimating the economic cost of drug abuse in consuming nations
  • The drugs problem and drug policy, developments between 1998 and 2007
  • The unintended consequences of drug policies
  • Methodological challenges in the country studies
 The study found no evidence that the global drug problem had reduced during the UNGASS period from 1998 to 2007. Some of its key findings are considered below.
 The geography of drug production
Production of cocaine is increasingly centred in Colombia, and of opiates in Afghanistan. More than 170 countries produce cannabis and cultivation is increasingly found to be indoors and in small plots. Amphetamine-type substances are mainly produced in the Netherlands (ecstasy), Russia (amphetamine) and Myanmar (methamphetamine).
 The geography of consumption
Cannabis use has declined on a global level as prevalence rates have fallen from 2002 onwards. Frequent heroin use has declined in western industrialised states,3 but has increased in Russia and Central Asia. Cocaine prevalence rates have declined in the US while increasing in Europe. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) estimates that the number of drug-related deaths in Europe doubled between 1990 and 2000, but fell by 15% between 2000 and 2005.
 The size and profitability of the global market
The study concludes that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate of the size of the global market (€280 billion) is inflated. Though illicit drug markets generate more than €100 billion in sales, the vast majority of those involved make relatively modest incomes. Retail prices for heroin and cocaine have fallen in the US over the last 20 years and in Europe over the last five years, despite a big increase in incarceration of heroin and cocaine sellers.
Drug policy
Countries take different approaches to controlling the use of illegal drugs: the US and Russia employ largely punitive policies, while the Netherlands and Switzerland regard the enforcement of criminal law as a last resort. Harm reduction has gained acceptance in a growing number of countries, including China and Iran. Iran has had in the past some of the harshest policies on drug use, but now sanctions the provision of methadone to over 100,000 opiate users.
 The report indicates that supply control policies tend to redistribute rather than suppress drug production, trafficking and market activity, and have other unintended consequences, such as an increase in violent killings and the disruption of parent-child relationships due to incarceration policies. Ultimately, there is little evidence that national level supply control policies have had much success. Although global seizures, as a share of estimated global production, have risen substantially for both cocaine (from 23% in 1998 to 42% in 2007) and heroin (from 13% in 1996 to 23% in 2006), the lowering of price at consumption level throughout most regions would indicate that there remains a plentiful supply of illegal drugs from farm gate or factory to the street-level drug seller.
 The first comprehensive study of the Irish illicit drug market is currently being carried out by the Health Research Board. Commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, this study is due for publication in 2010.
1. Reuter P and Trautmann F (eds) (2009) A report on global illicit drug markets 1998-2007. Report by the Trimbos Institute and RAND for the European Commission Directorate-General for Freedom, Justice and Security. Brussels: European Commission.
2. The country reports feature Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Hungary, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russian Federation, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the US.
3. The 2008 EMCDDA report states that new recruitment to heroin use is still occurring at a rate that will ensure that the problem will not decline significantly in the foreseeable future.
Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Issue Title
Issue 30, Summer 2009
Page Range
pp. 23-24
Health Research Board
Issue 30, Summer 2009
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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