Around 269 million people used drugs worldwide in 2018, 30% more than in 2009, while over 35 million people suffer from drug use disorders, a UN report said on Thursday.
The report released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna also analyses the impact of COVID-19 on the drugs markets.
While the pandemic effects are not yet fully known, the report said that border and other restrictions linked to the pandemic have already caused shortages of drugs on the street, leading to increased prices and reduced purity.
The report noted that rising unemployment and reduced opportunities caused by the pandemic are also likely to affect the poorest disproportionately, making them more vulnerable to drug use and even to drug trafficking and cultivation to earn money.
“Vulnerable and marginalized groups, youth, women, and the poor pay the price for the world drug problem,” said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly.
“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.”
Cannabis was the most used substance worldwide in 2018, with an estimated 192 million people using it globally.
Opioids, however, remain the most harmful, as, over the past decade, the total number of deaths due to opioid use disorders went up 71%, with a 92% increase among women compared with 63% among men.
Due to COVID-19, traffickers may have to find new routes and methods. Trafficking activities via the darknet and shipments by mail may increase, although the international postal supply chain being disrupted, the report said.
The pandemic has also led to opioid shortages, which may result in people seeking out more readily available substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, or mixing with synthetic drugs.
“More harmful patterns of use may emerge as some users switch to injecting, or more frequent injecting,” said the report.
Drug use increased far more rapidly among developing countries over the 2000-2018 period than in developed countries.
Adolescents and young adults account for the largest share of those using drugs, while young people are also the most vulnerable to drugs because they use the most, and their brains are still developing.
While the impact of laws that have legalized cannabis in some jurisdictions is still hard to assess, the report said it is noteworthy that the frequent use of cannabis has increased in all of these jurisdictions after legalization.
In some of these jurisdictions, more potent cannabis products are also more common in the market.
Cannabis also remains the primary drug that brings people into contact with the criminal justice system. It accounts for more than half of drug law offenses cases, based on data from 69 countries covering the period between 2014 and 2018.