24 June 2021

Knowing the facts about drugs can save lives. Drug use killed nearly half a million people in 2019 alone1—a tragic loss of life and future potential that could have been spared through evidence-based prevention and treatment, coupled with balanced, health-centred justice responses.

This year’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, on 26 June, is being observed as the world contends with the second year of the COVID-19 crisis.

The global pandemic has shown us how much our health and safety rely on science and verified information. The theme for World Drug Day 2021—“Share facts on drugs. Save lives” focuses on the power of facts and science to inform approaches to drugs, from individual decisions to effective health and security interventions and policies.

To fight misinformation and promote data-driven decision-making, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is playing its part by supporting the international community with world-class research—a key component of our integrated assistance to countries in tackling the world drug problem.

Every year, the World Drug Report explores key trends in drug demand and supply, and their implications for individuals and societies. The 2021 edition highlights the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on drug markets and trafficking modes, as well as on drug use, and prevention and treatment services.

Initially disrupted by travel restrictions and lockdowns, drug markets quickly recovered. Criminal organizations swiftly adapted to change, shifting routes and trafficking patterns towards a greater use of land and waterway transportation.

International cooperation is essential to counter these developments. More investment is needed to help low-income countries improve their surveillance capacities with real-time data monitoring systems to closely track and respond to changes in trafficking routes and tactics. Intelligence sharing among countries to inform effective cross-border cooperation is key, but information also needs to flow between national authorities and private companies in the shipping sector, which has an ever more important role to play in the fight against trafficking.

Criminals have been circumventing COVID-19 restrictions on the retail side as well, with street dealing losing ground to contactless distribution methods such as mail, and even drones, to deliver drugs sold online.

Web-based drug sales were on the rise already before the pandemic. Major drug markets on the dark web were worth $315 million per year on average in the period from mid-2017 to 2020,2 which is a fourfold increase compared to the period from 2011 to mid-2017.

To tackle a drug market that is more globalized than ever, we need global responses. Police and justice officials from different countries must learn from each other and cooperate through joint investigation teams, while governments should harmonize their regulations on cryptocurrency markets to ensure there is no safe haven for the profits of online drug sales. Internet service providers, tech and mailing companies need to work together with governments to counter the promotion of drugs sold online while adhering to privacy standards.

The pandemic has also contributed to shaping drug use trends, with isolation and economic hardship driving changes.

Increases in the non-medical use of cannabis and pharmaceutical sedatives such as benzodiazepines were noted in a survey of health professionals in 77 countries, while North America saw a spike in opioid overdose deaths.

To save lives, raising awareness of drug use risks and promoting evidence-based drug prevention and treatment responses should become important investment areas in the pandemic recovery.

Comprehensive recovery plans should focus on implementing international drug prevention and treatment standards, and support for life skills and family skills programmes in vulnerable communities.

Finally, the need to maintain continuity of drug prevention and treatment services throughout the pandemic has prompted more innovation from service providers, and a shift to online modes of service delivery. International scientific standards for services will need to be adapted to take these developments into account, while countries must address disparities in access to services, and digital exclusion.

Comprehensive recovery plans should focus on implementing international drug prevention and treatment standards, and support for life skills and family skills programmes in vulnerable communities.

COVID-19 has made our world poorer, wiping out jobs and livelihoods, worsening inequalities and reversing development gains. The lack of opportunities means that illicit drug crop cultivation and drug trafficking will have a stronger financial appeal, while drug use will remain closely intertwined with the legacy of the mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Countries will have to respond with shared responsibility, for an inclusive recovery promoting alternative livelihoods in opium poppy and coca bush cultivation areas, as well as investments in education, opportunities and mental health care for youth everywhere.

In building forward from the pandemic, now is the time to address drug challenges and their root causes with science and solidarity, to leave no one behind.

 

Notes

1. United Nations Office on Drugs And CrimeWorld Drug Report 2021. Global Overview: Drug Demand, Drug Supply (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.21.XI.8), p. 32. 

2. Ibid., p. 76.
 

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