Illegal drug market is booming, says UN watchdog

eport says production of heroin and cocaine is increasing as campaigners call for better measures to tackle cartels

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A police officer holds a bag of heroin confiscated in the US.
A police officer holds a bag of heroin confiscated in the US. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

The world’s illicit drug economy is “thriving” owing to large increases in the production of heroin and cocaine and a wider spectrum of synthetic substances on the market, the UN’s drugs watchdog said.

Global seizures of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) – which include methamphetamine, amphetamine and MDMA – reached a five-year high of 191 tonnes in 2015, according to a report from the UN office on drugs and crime based on the latest figures available.

At the same time, coca bush cultivation increased by 30% between 2013-15 as demand increased in Europe and North America, while opium production rose by a thirdcoming back into line with long-term averages.

The report says: “Overall, drug trafficking seems to have increased slightly in 2015 and some drug markets, particularly the cocaine and synthetic drugs markets, appear to be thriving.”

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the drugs information charity Release, said the report showed business was booming for drug cartels. “Despite decades of global prohibition and tens of billions of dollars invested annually in anti-trafficking measures, governments have consistently failed in their attempts to eradicate or even suppress the market.

“Yet, drug harms are increasing with record levels of drug-related deaths in the US, Canada and the UK, and significant increases in blood-borne viruses related to injecting drug use.

“This report shows that the current global framework for tackling drugs has failed and that new approaches, such as decriminalisation of possession offences and regulation of the market, must be pursued.”

About 250 million people used drugs in 2015, the report says. Of them, 29.5 million – or 0.6% of the global adult population – had a drug use disorder, including addiction.


Opioids remained the most harmful drug type and accounted for 70% of drug use disorders worldwide, the report says. Second was methamphetamine, which is spreading far beyond poor white communities in the US, with drugs seizures in east and south-east Asia exceeding those in North America for the first time in 2015.

The report notes a marked increase in harm from cocaine use, with the overall disease burden caused by the drug rising 37% in the 10 years to 2015.

The report shows that the amount of ATS drugs seized had more than doubled from 93 tonnes in 2010 to 191 tonnes in 2015. Methamphetamine, a particularly potent stimulant, accounted for 61-80% of seizures during the period, with amphetamine making up between a fifth and a third and MDMA 5%.

Western Europe remains the biggest global supplier of MDMA, the UN said, with the Netherlands and Belgium the largest manufacturers of the drug. From there, trafficking flows mainly to the US but east and south-east Asia are also emerging as significant destinations. At the same time, Europeans are rediscovering their interest in the drug, which is associated with dance music and nightclubbing.

Martin Powell, head of campaigns at the thinktank Transform, said: “The UN world drug report states that far from delivering a drug-free world, the drug war has created an illegal market that is thriving and diversifying, fuelling organised crime, terrorism and corruption while causing hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths.

“However, we welcome that the report also acknowledges – for the first time without condemning – the growing legalisation and regulation of cannabis around the world, that is protecting people by taking the market out of the hands of criminals. We call on the UN and governments to explore regulation of other drugs too.”


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