Drug overdose deaths 'break records' in US and Canada

Middle East also fighting increased production of amphetamines

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Deaths by drug overdose in the US and Canada, particularly by recreational use of fentanyl, continue to “break records”, a UN report says.

“Preliminary estimates in the United States point to more than 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021, up from nearly 92,000 in 2020,” the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report released on Monday.

Increased harmful levels of non-medical pharmaceutical drug use were reported in the coronavirus pandemic period, the report found. Today, more young people are using drugs compared with earlier generations, and women in particular are unable to find treatment.

“Women account for over 40 per cent of people using pharmaceutical drugs for non-medical purposes, and nearly one in two people using amphetamine-type stimulants, but only one in five in treatment for amphetamine-type stimulants is a woman,” Ghada Waly, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said.

In April, US President Joe Biden announced a new strategy designed to battle drugs use.

It includes expanding access to antidotes to prevent overdoses, treatment services, new efforts to disrupt transnational criminal organisations' financial networks and supply chains.

“It’s time we treat addiction like any other disease. And at the same time, we are disrupting drug traffickers’ financial networks, supply chains, and delivery routes, including on the internet,” Mr Biden said at the launch of the strategy.

Middle East still battling Captagon

Amphetamine misuse is not limited to North America. The Middle East is dealing with floods of the amphetamine known as Captagon from Lebanon and Syria, UNODC found.

Saudi Arabia seized the most amphetamines in 2020, at the equivalent of almost 30 tonnes, followed by the United Arab Emirates at roughly 12.5 tonnes.

Traffickers are known to employ unusual methods for smuggling, like placing the drugs inside a shipment of fava beans, or hiding them inside grapes, or tea bags.

Saudi Arabia banned Lebanese produce last year after announcing it had stopped 600 million pills and hundreds of kilograms of hashish from Lebanon from entering the kingdom in the six years before.

The 10-year civil war in Syria created a “fertile environment” for Captagon production, which, the UN said, has become “increasingly important to the illicit economy” in the country.

Last month, Jordan's military said it reported a sharp rise in attempts to smuggle drugs worth millions into the country from Syria, particularly Captagon pills.

“The Jordanian armed forces are confronting a drugs war on the [Syrian] border,” Col Mustafa Hiyari, head of military media, told reporters.

Armed groups profiting

In Africa's Sahel, armed groups associated with Al Qaeda and ISIS are exploiting the drug trade for gain, the UN report said.

The drug commonly trafficked there is cannabis, mainly produced in Morocco for consumption in Europe and the Middle East.

“There is mounting evidence that the Sahel route is being used for cannabis resin trafficking, and the Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Mali reports several instances in which large cannabis resin shipments transiting from Morocco to Libya have produced deadly clashes between groups in the region, potentially constituting ceasefire violations.”

Daily cannabis use, especially among young adults with mental health issues, has become prevalent, the report said.

“Cannabis legalisation in North America appears to have increased daily cannabis use, especially potent cannabis products and particularly among young adults.

“Associated increases in people with psychiatric disorders, suicides and hospitalisations have also been reported. Legalisation has also increased tax revenue and generally reduced arrest rates for cannabis possession.

Cocaine manufacture hit a record in 2020 — up almost 11 per cent from the year before — as gaps continue to appear in the availability of drug treatments for women, the report said.

“Cocaine seizures also increased, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, to a record 1,424 tonnes in 2020,” the UN found.

While North America and Europe are the main markets for the drug, more cocaine is being trafficked to Africa and Asia.

Updated: June 28, 2022, 2:13 PM