Illegal drugs market 'thriving': UN

Officers discovered bales of cocaine in a compartment beneath the decking area at the rear of the vessel, Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) said in a statement (AFP Photo/Erika SANTELICES) (AFP/File)

Vienna (AFP) - The global narcotics market is "thriving", with production of cocaine and opium soaring and opioids wreaking havoc, the UN crime and drugs agency said Thursday in a gloomy annual assessment.

"As the report... clearly shows, there is much work to be done to confront the many harms inflicted by drugs, to health, development, peace and security, in all regions of the world," said Yury Fedotov, head of the Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which is based in Vienna.

He said that while "the international community is equipped to respond swiftly... there remains an enormous need for capacity-building and technical assistance, and funding continues to fall short of political commitments."

About 29.5 million people worldwide, or 0.6 percent of the adult population, suffered from drug use disorders in 2015, with at least 190,000 mostly avoidable deaths annually, mainly from opioids.

In 2016, global production of opium -- extracted from poppy resin and refined to make heroin -- rocketed by a third, mostly because of bumper harvests in Afghanistan, the report said, helping fund Taliban insurgents.

This rise, aided by better weather, came despite a decade of international efforts to stabilise the country and billions of dollars to persuade Afghan farmers to grow other crops.

But the UNODC said global opium production was 20 percent lower than at its peak in 2014, and close to the average of the past five years.

Regarding cocaine, data on production, trafficking -- a record volume was seized in 2015 -- and use, including in Europe and North America, point to overall growth in the global market, the agency said.

Quantities intercepted in Asia leapt 40 percent in 2015. It pointed to the haul of 500 kilogrammes (1,100 pounds) in Djibouti this year, the biggest in East Africa since 2004, probably en route to Asia.

Following a long-term decline, cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine, shot up 30 percent over 2013-15, mainly due to Colombia, the world's biggest producer.

- Opioid epidemic -

But opioids, which include heroin as well as prescription painkillers like fentanyl and illegal counterfeits, remain by far the "most harmful" drugs in health terms, the UNODC said.

In the United States, overdose deaths, most of them from opioids, more than tripled to 52,404 in 2015 from 16,849 in 1999, the report said.

The report also found a "major geographical shift" in the methamphetamine market over the last five years.

The amount seized in 2015 saw East and Southeast Asia leapfrog North America into first place for the first time.

"Of particular note is the large increase in methamphetamine seizures in China," it said.

The agency also noted that an alternative branch of the "Balkan route" for heroin and morphine, which accounts for 40 percent of seizures, appears to be opening up through the Caucasus.

This may reflect efforts to stop the flow of migrants through the Balkans, with the amount of drugs seized falling in Greece and Turkey but rising sharply in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In addition, it said that the business models of organised crime gangs are constantly changing and that they are using new technologies such as the "darknet" to sell drugs.

The darknet, where anonymity software and encryption hide activities and allow transactions in crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, accounts for a "small percentage" of drug sales but it is "growing rapidly," the report said.