UNODC report shows significant increase in drug use as international responses diverge

Lucy TrevelyanSunday 30 July 2023

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s World Drug Report 2023 has revealed that the number of people using drugs rose to 296 million in 2021. The report, published in late June, shows a 23 per cent increase compared to the previous decade. In the same period, the number of people suffering from drug-use disorders increased by 45 per cent to 39.5 million globally. Yet despite these rises, only one in five people suffering from a drug-related disorder was receiving treatment for drug use in 2021.

The speedy, cost-effective and easy production of synthetic drugs has ‘radically transformed’ illegal drug markets around the globe with ‘lethal results’, the report says. Indeed, in 2021 alone, most of the nearly 90,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in North America involved illegally manufactured fentanyl. UNODC has called for better law enforcement responses to tackle the explosion in synthetic drugs and highlighted the need for public health, prevention and access to treatment services to be prioritised worldwide.

Social media and the internet underworld, known as the dark web, continue to provide opportunities for the amateur chemist to share and improve synthesis methods, says Alan Edwards, an expert on combatting serious organised crime with the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office and a consultant at Red Lion Chambers in London. As a result, there will be a need to constantly update legislation to deal with each and every compound. ‘Cocktails of new drugs will emerge mixed with traditional medicines, heightening the effects but keeping them below the enforcement radar’, he explains. ‘In the light of the rise of synthetics a new approach is required. The traditional route of rule of law cannot keep up with tweaks to the production method. The approach needs to move into decriminalisation and towards legalisation with safer alternatives offered by governments alongside medical services funded from approved sales.’

Edwards says that the priority of any government should be to protect the communities it represents from harm. This doesn’t, by implication, mean strong enforcement becoming the linchpin. ‘Taken out of the criminal markets, drug crimes will amount to lesser offences, such as enforcing prohibitions on supplying without a licence. It is the legislation that makes a crime, and criminals will always look for markets where demand is being suppressed through legislation. A change in approach could undermine the criminal market, making it less profitable and therefore unattractive’, he adds.

Some drug-related offences still carry the death penalty in jurisdictions such as Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. And other countries appear to be escalating their already hardline ‘war on drugs’ approach, with the UK, for example, releasing a white paper in 2022 that proposed a new three-tiered punishment system for drug possession.

In the white paper, the UK Home Office announced its commitment to reversing the rising use of drugs such as cannabis and cocaine with tougher penalties for recreational users. Then-Home Secretary Priti Patel said: ‘We are cracking down on drug use with tougher consequences for so-called recreational drug users who will face the consequences of their actions through sanctions including fines and conditions to attend rehabilitation courses, while drug offenders could have their passports and driving licences confiscated.’

In the light of the rise of synthetic drugs a new approach is required. The traditional route of rule of law cannot keep up with tweaks to the production method

Alan Edwards
Consultant, Red Lion Chambers

Conversely, countries such as Australia, Paraguay, Portugal and Uruguay, and some US states have adopted decriminalisation strategies to varying degrees, while Germany is currently drawing up plans to fully regulate legal cannabis markets. The Canadian state of British Columbia is beginning a trial to permit the possession of up to 2.5 grams of hard drugs such as cocaine. Those found in possession, if intended for personal use, will be offered information on health and social services rather than entering the criminal law process. ‘The approach taken by these countries is intended to undermine criminal markets, making it unprofitable for criminal gangs, and is part of a longer-term strategy’, says Edwards. ‘A rule of law approach is resource-heavy and takes up a lot of police and court time.’

For Edwards, decriminalisation entails the removal of criminal sanctions against users, while dealing in the drug itself remains illegal, and represents a way of moving to a health-centred approach. It can also be a potential stepping stone to full legalisation, he explains, the consequences of which could provide a funding stream for health services through sales and reduced expenditure on enforcement activity. The product would be subject to quality control and users more easily identified for medical interventions.’

Edwards warns though that seeing resulting revenue streams as a cash cow could risk pricing the legal approach out of the market, allowing criminal networks to move back in. ‘This is demonstrated by both Malta and Uruguay, which operate not-for-profit cooperatives, recognising the market is susceptible to commercial capture’, he explains.

The UNODC report doesn’t appear to suggest that any state is leading on drugs prevention but several jurisdictions are trying alternatives, with some policy changes focusing on positive health rather than punishment. This is a useful guide for other states, says Felicity Gerry KC, Asia Pacific Regional Forum Liaison Officer of the IBA Criminal Law Committee and a barrister at Libertas Chambers in London.

‘One of the main challenges the report exposes is how to achieve a move away from a militaristic criminal law approach – the “war on drugs” – to a public health/law/education approach to drug use and misuse’, says Gerry KC. ‘Another is the challenge to reduce poverty and exploitation in drug production and sale – neither pure liberalisation nor mass incarceration is sustainable. The contrast between the complete ban in Afghanistan and the liberalisation in other states is interesting because the report shows that neither is likely to reduce the upward trend in drug trafficking effects.’

As a defence advocate in criminal law, Gerry KC sees that for some young people, selling drugs is a pathway to wealth that’s otherwise unavailable due to a lack of access to education and employment. When tackling drug crime, governments should prioritise a combination of health, education and law rather than pursue a one dimensional ‘war’, says Gerry. ‘They should also appreciate that health includes both physical and mental health, recognise cognitive disorders and accept non-punishment of those exploited in the drug trade.’

This is not to suggest, adds Gerry KC, that there should not be any punishment for drug production or dealing, but rather to see mechanisms such as arrest as an opportunity for intervention rather than punishment. ‘The report supports this alternative approach as a sensible policy move rather than an overly liberal approach,’ she explains.

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