Fact Sheet No. 4


United Nations General Assembly
Special Session on the World Drug Problem

New York, 8-10 June 1998


All countries are affected by the devastating consequences of drug abuse. Rapidly changing social and economic circumstances, the global availability of illicit drugs, and the rising demand for them have all contributed to the increasing magnitude of this serious global problem.

The drug problem has also become increasingly complex. It can no longer be argued that drug abuse is taking place only among marginalized groups, or mainly in the western industrialized world. Drug abuse emerges as means of survival for underprivileged young people who are in contact with street life and crime. It also forms part of a youth subculture which is quickly spreading a benign image of drugs around the globe.

Illicit drugs are addictive substances, a fact that blurs the dividing line between use and abuse, and between consumption and addiction. Based on estimates by the United Nations Drug Control Programme, annual illicit drug consumption is likely to involve 3.3 per cent to 4.1 per cent of the world's population. From a health perspective, the most serious drug of abuse is heroin. Although its consumption is still relatively small - 8 million people or 0.14 per cent of the world population - its use is increasing. Cocaine is more widespread in terms of the total number of consumers - 13 million people or 0.23 per cent of the world's population, though fewer countries are affected. Cannabis is the most widely abused drug, consumed by about 2.5 per cent of the world population - about 140 million people.

Although the overwhelming majority of illicit drugs currently consumed are still derived from plants or plant products that have been synthetically modified, a wave of abuse of synthetic Amphetamine Type Stimulants (ATS) has been reported in recent years, with a 16 per cent average annual increase in quantities seized. Today, some 30 million people or 0.5 per cent of the global population, consume ATS. There appears to be a perception, widely spread through media and directed specifically to young people, that these substances are "fashionable" and safe.

Another key factor affecting illicit drug demand is that the age of initiation is falling almost every year. This is especially notable with regard to people seeking treatment for opiate abuse, as during 1995 when more young people in the age group 15-19 years entered treatment than during the entire three-year period from 1992 to 1994. This is not only a phenomenon of developed countries. Many developing countries reported a similar trend in the growing number of youth abusing cannabis, heroin, stimulants and hallucinogens.

The question of volatile substances must also be considered, as these are not subject to international control measures. These substances may function as a gateway to narcotics and psychotropic substances, and young people in especially difficult circumstances, such as street children, are particularly vulnerable. For millions of children living on the streets, sniffing volatile substances is both a mental and physical escape.

Responses:  Strategies

The priority in demand reduction activities is to reach vulnerable people. To do so effectively, it is also necessary to analyse the problem accurately and to develop strategies that work.

In view of the rising tide of drug abuse among youth and the changing patterns of consumption, it is important that links be established between policy-makers and people taking drugs or at risk of taking them, to determine what action is most appropriate. Involving people at risk in the analysis of the problem and in the identification of solutions is the most effective way to understand and respond to their specific needs. A varied spectrum of prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and social reintegration initiatives can then be developed and implemented.

Demand reduction programmes generally include and integrate three stages:

Primary prevention aims to prevent or at least delay the initiation of illicit drug use. The focus of this initial stage of prevention is to provide information and educate various target groups within the general population about psycho-active substances and the risks associated with their use. Educational services aim to strengthen individual's self-esteem and resistance to peer pressure; to promote healthy life styles; to provide a supportive environment and the opportunity to develop life skills.

Secondary prevention aims at helping people who are illicit drug abusers to break their habits. It provides drug abusers with educational and counselling services to persuade them to cease experimentation, as well as a range of treatment regimes, followed by rehabilitation programmes. It also provides drug abusers with adequate aftercare services in order to sustain drug-free behaviours, prevent relapses and facilitate social reintegration. Secondary prevention should ideally culminate in the drug addict's return to a drug-free life.

Tertiary prevention aims at reducing the adverse consequences of drug abuse, such as the spread of AIDS.

Worldwide concerted action is needed for drug abuse prevention to be effective. The participation of nations, communities, and families is essential for success. In this regard, the United Nations Drug Control Programme coordinates international efforts and acts as a catalyst for action at various levels. It collaborates with Governments in formulating demand reduction strategies built on community participation. Demand reduction programmes establish local partnerships among non-governmental organizations, community leaders, teachers, parents, youth leaders, and heath and welfare professionals. The involvement of these actors is necessary in order to reach those at risk and to respond to their specific needs.

The Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction

A growing consensus emerged among Member States during the preparatory work for the Special Session on the need to intensify the efforts against drug abuse. This concern led to the elaboration of the very first international agreement with the sole objective of examining individual and collective problems that arise from individual drug abuse. The Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Demand Reduction indicates the priority policies and strategies required to translate into action an unprecedented commitment to drastically reduce drug demand worldwide by the year 2008. The Declaration is expected to be adopted at the GA Special Session. It constitutes an important step forward as it complements the existing drug control regime, thus providing an indispensable tool for the implementation of a balanced global strategy against illicit drugs. The Declaration addresses systematically all aspects of drug abuse through the following guidelines:

Policies should be based on knowledge acquired from research and from lessons learned from past programmes. A systematic and periodic assessment of the problem is imperative for the identification of emerging trends. To further build on experience, demand reduction strategies and specific activities should be thoroughly evaluated to improve their effectiveness, and appropriate emphasis should be placed on training policy-makers, programme planners and practitioners. The following guides should be adhered to:

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