Fact Sheet No. 6


United Nations General Assembly
Special Session on the World Drug Problem

New York, 8-10 June 1998


Drugs derived from natural plants, such as cannabis and heroin, remain the most widely abused substances in the world. Cannabis ranks first with 140 million consumers, or 2.5 % of the global population. The most dangerous, heroin and cocaine, are abused by 8 and 13 million people respectively. Heroin is consistently ranked first in reports on abuse-related mortality and hospital emergencies.

Heroin and cocaine cause suffering to individuals and their families. Their illicit production and trade are also detrimental to national economies and, therefore, to the social and political well-being of nations. The enormous profits made by drug trafficking organizations allow them to penetrate, corrupt and destabilize the economies and institutions of countries in various parts of the world. The links between illicit drug trafficking and the sale of illegal arms to promote the activities of insurgency movements and terrorist groups are well known.

Illicit cultivation of cannabis is widespread across the globe and appears to be stable, whereas global production of opium and cocaine, which is concentrated in certain areas, increased considerably during the 1970s and 1980s. Almost 90 per cent of illicit opium and heroin originate in South-West and South-East Asia. The two major opium growing countries are Afghanistan and Myanmar, with Laos ranking a distant third. Some illicit cultivation of opium poppy also takes place in Colombia, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam. Bolivia, Colombia and Peru account for approximately 98 per cent of the world's coca leaf supply. Small-scale cultivation also occurs in neighbouring countries, such as Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela.

In the rural areas of Asia and Latin America, about 700,000 families, or around 4 million people, depend on income derived from the cultivation of coca leaf and opium poppy. Most of them live below the poverty line and rely on this activity for some 50 per cent of their income. Although the drug trade often helps them to cope with food shortages and the vagaries of agricultural markets, economic dependence on illicit crops is not sustainable in the long run. The cultivation of coca leaf and opium poppy leaves farmers wide open to exploitation at the hands of ruthless middlemen. They also face the constant threat of forced eradication of their crops. In countries such as Colombia, many eke out a miserable existence on large-scale commercial farms owned by drug traffickers. Most of the 700,000 families would willingly switch to other sources of income, given suitable alternatives.

The problems which the cultivation of coca leaf and opium poppy give rise to are inextricably linked to consumption. Early drug control approaches concentrated mostly on the trafficking segment, attempting to break the chain in the middle through reliance on law enforcement methods. In spite of increasing efforts and successes, it is estimated that not more than 10 per cent of the heroin and 30 per cent of the cocaine supply can be intercepted.

During the 1980s, the concept of a balanced approach emerged, in which each stage was tackled with equal vigour. This approach led to the adoption of international strategies and instruments of cooperation. Multi-sectoral plans for drug control were subsequently adopted by Governments.

A similar development took place with regard to strategies to eliminate illicit cultivation through the provision of alternative sources of income to farmers in the 1970s. Reliance on a crop-substitution approach first evolved in the 1980s and 1990s into broader alternative development strategies which addressed the socio-economic determinants of coca leaf and opium poppy cultivation. The issues addressed included health care, education, infrastructure, food supplies, access to markets and credit, and income-generating activities, together with law enforcement and forced eradication measures.

During the last 25 years, Governments and international agencies have acquired considerable expertise in managing programmes to combat illicit cultivation. There has been significant progress in certain geographical areas. Coca leaf cultivation has been reduced by 95 per cent in the project areas in Peru. In the Dir district of Pakistan, opium poppy cultivation may soon disappear. In Thailand, alternative development measures have led to the virtual elimination of opium poppy cultivation. The overall impact on global supply and demand has, however, not been significant as successes have always been geographically limited and threatened by a "balloon effect", whereby cultivation is simply shifted from one area to another.

One of the main constraints is that there have not been enough funds to support alternative development programmes in all the producing areas. These areas are located in the developing and the least developed countries, whose resources are too limited to deal with a wide array of socio-economic problems. At the same time, technical assistance from donor countries and institutions for alternative development has amounted to a relatively modest US$ 700 million worldwide during the last ten years. For example, in 1995 external aid for alternative development amounted to a mere 1.5 per cent of the total assistance received by the producing countries.

More resources must be channelled into alternative development programmes to ensure a sustainable effort. These programmes must become part of the national development strategies and public expenditure budgets of the producing countries. External donors should allocate more technical and financial assistance to support the elimination of illicit cultivation in the producing countries.

The objective is to use the experience gained from the geographically limited programmes implemented so far to design appropriate approaches on a larger scale, covering all the producing areas. Altogether, coca leaf and opium poppy cultivation cover a relatively small area of about 4,500 square kilometers, roughly half the area of Puerto Rico.

Strong Commitment to a Bold Objective

After three decades of experience, the international community is now equipped with tested methodologies and the expertise to tackle the problems described above. The strengthening of drug control capacities in the regions concerned has paved the way for full-scale intervention, and most producing countries have adopted well-defined national strategies and action plans that are ready for implementation.

The General Assembly Special Session offers an historic opportunity for global cooperation. Member States have already shown their determination to mobilize resources and increase practical action to attain a bold objective: the elimination or substantial reduction of coca leaf, opium poppy and cannabis cultivation by 2008.

The Action Plan on International Cooperation on Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and Alternative Development

History shows that there is no single way to eliminate the cultivation and production of illicit crops. Even when alternative development projects are successful, some growers and processors have not abandoned production voluntarily. They must understand that there is a risk associated with illicit crop cultivation. Therefore, the Action Plan which will be considered at the Special Session stresses the importance of integrating alternative development programmes and law enforcement measures.

To maximize their impact, alternative development programmes should:

Law enforcement measures are necessary at every stage of the drug cycle, including illicit trafficking; diversion of chemical precursors; operation of illicit drug laboratories; money-laundering and organized crime, both in areas where alternative development programmes are implemented and elsewhere along the trafficking chain. Moreover, when organized crime is involved in cultivation, measures such as eradication, destruction of illicit crops and arrests may be appropriate.

Strengthening International Cooperation

The elimination of illicit crops cannot be achieved without full involvement of the international community. Governments, international organizations, NGOs, regional development banks and the financial sector all have a role in this common endeavour. Long-term financial and political commitments are required. The links between development processes and drug production are sensitive. UNDCP is currently preparing, in consultation with Governments and other international agencies, a series of initiatives designed to ensure an effective global response.

The establishment of a global monitoring system, based on commonly agreed goals and objectives, is critical. The system would combine remote sensing technologies with other techniques, such as ground surveys, to provide an ongoing assessment of the impact of alternative development programmes. At the same time, monitoring of the areas at risk would prevent the "balloon effect" from nullifying the overall impact of eradication programmes by reacting rapidly against illicit cultivation in new areas.

UNDCP and Member States will continue to work closely to develop this and other global scale initiatives.

For more information, please contact:

Sandro Tucci
United Nations International Drug Control Programme
Vienna International Centre, Room E 1448
P.O Box 500
A-1400 Vienna, Austria

Tel: (431) 21345-5629;
Fax: (431) 21345-5931

Bill Hass
Development and Human Rights Section
United Nations Department of Public Information
Room S-1040
United Nations Headquarters
1, United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017

Tel: (212) 963 0353/3771;
Fax:(212) 963 1186