June 28, 2010:
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which collects statistics on drug use worldwide, has released its latest report on drug production and use. Production and distribution of these drugs is a major cause of unrest and corruption worldwide, with drug use a major public health problem as well. However, the most widely used drug in the world is still marijuana (and it's refined version, hashish), which is considered no worse than alcohol. Most cultures disagree. There are about 160 million users of marijuana and hashish worldwide, down a few percent in the last year. Many users live in rural areas where marijuana grows wild and legal restrictions are not energetically enforced. But in many urban areas, marijuana is a major source of income for gangsters, and some terrorist groups. Not as profitable as cocaine and heroin, and harder to smuggle (because of the bulk), it is still a major threat because it has such a large market.
Marijuana has been used by humans for over 5,000 years. It's been used for medicinal purposes, to enhance food recipes or religious ceremonies and, well, to just get high. Because cannabis is not as powerful as opium (another ancient drug, but much more expensive to produce), and a lot easier to get (it grows wild in many parts of the world, especially Central Asia) societies, and governments, tended to ignore its impact. Alcoholic beverages were seen as more of a public menace. That perception has reversed in the last century or so.
Hashish, however, can be potent stuff. Especially if it is extracted from strains of cannabis bred to have higher amounts of THC (the major active ingredient that gives you the buzz). This breeding effort has more than tripled the THC content of commercial cannabis strains over the last three decades. For Afghan farmers, cannabis is cheaper and easier to grow than poppies (the source of opium and heroin), and less likely to attract the attention of NATO or Afghan drug control forces. Cannabis is not as profitable as poppies, but it's still more profitable than wheat. Who really gets hurt by this switch are the drug gangs, which make a lot less money on hashish, compared to heroin. That means less money for their Taliban allies as well. Thus while indoor growing of potent Cannabis strains is more popular in Industrialized countries, rural nations are producing more outdoor crops, and converting more of it to easily smuggled hashish. This has become a growing source of income for criminal gangs in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Mexico and South America.
There are about 30 million users of cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs. These are the most profitable drugs, because they command the highest prices. Heroin, which funds much of the violence in Afghanistan, is largely (60 percent) consumed in three nearby markets (West Europe, Russia and China). Smaller, but significant markets are in the Persian Gulf and North America. Some 40 percent of the heroin is being smuggled out via Pakistan (which has millions of addicts of the cheaper opium, which in refined form is heroin). Pakistan is now the favored smuggling route because Iran and Turkey have become very effective in intercepting the smugglers.
Afghanistan produces 89 percent of the world's heroin, although that is likely to dip ten percent or more because of a plant disease (poppy blight) that has destroyed much of the recent crop. More heroin is coming out of the traditional big producers in the Golden Triangle (Myanmar/Burma), as well as new producers in Mexico and Colombia.
Cocaine continues to come mainly from South America (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia), and the biggest market (42 percent of sales) is North America. But Europe is catching up (39 percent of sales). In fact, the number of cocaine users in North America has declined by half in the last three decades, while the number has increased in Europe and other markets. Because of the growth in the European market, the cocaine gangs have established a smuggling route that goes through West Africa and the Sahara Desert (where the drugs are guarded by Islamic terrorists, who need the money). As if West Africa was not corrupt enough, now it has cocaine, and cocaine money, to worry about. Another growing market for cocaine is Latin America, which has about half as many users as North America's 5.3 million. Other growth markets are the Persian Gulf and East Asia (where cocaine is still relatively exotic.)
The biggest growth area is for synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and Ecstasy (and even more exotic formulations). Production of this stuff was up 20 percent in the last year. These drugs are less likely to fund rebels or terrorists, although some Arab migrants in the West have been found dealing these drugs, and sending some of their profits to Islamic terrorist organizations.