The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Tuesday that the use of amphetamine-type stimulants, including methamphetamine and MDMA or ecstasy, have surpassed heroin and cocaine as the most commonly used hard drugs. In remarks at a Rome press conference and in a subsequent Reuters interview, UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa used the announcement of the findings to lash out at "liberalizers," repeated discredited claims about ecstasy's dangers, and bemoaned the fact that few people die from ecstasy or amphetamine overdoses.
UNODC's Ecstasy and Amphetamines Global Survey 2003 found that seizures of what the UN calls "amphetamine-type stimulants" (ATS) had increased ten-fold during the 1990s, from four tons to forty tons, and estimated total annual ATS production at 500 tons in 2001. That supply fed the habits of some 40 million users worldwide. Amphetamines were more widely used in Asia, with Thailand reporting a world-leading 5.6% of its population using speed, while in Western Europe and North America, ecstasy was the most commonly reported ATS.
"Profits are driving the business," the report stated, adding that one kilogram of ATS, sold at black market prices, typically pays for the initial investment in setting up a small laboratory. UNODC estimated profit rates for ATS producers at 3000-4000% and pegged the trade's value at $65 billion per year. And it is a growth market, according to UNODC, which found a 70% increase in ecstasy use from 1995 to 2001 and a 40% increase in speed use.
But the fact that production is spurred by windfall black market profits was less worrisome than the specter of "culturally sanctioned" drug use for Costa, who warned in Rome that: "The abuse of synthetic drugs risks becoming culturally sanctioned, blurring the notion of drug addiction, as parents and governments alike are confused about the severity of their impact. Especially alarming are occasional calls for some form of liberalization of substances that have the potential to maim our youth." For emphasis, Costa added that, "Opting out, namely -- accepting any notion of the liberalization of the market, is not an option, as the health of our society is at risk. Better safe than sorry," Costa concluded.
If there is confusion about the severity of the health impact of ATS, Costa and the UNODC contributed to it by referring to the now discredited research of Dr. George Ricaurte of Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Ricaurte is currently gaining infamy for trumpeting alarmist findings about neurological damage from ecstasy based on studies that he has now had to retract (see http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/302/oops.shtml and http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/303/escandal.shtml for info). But the ongoing reassessment of Ricaurte's now increasingly challenged work escaped UNODC, which warned of "worrying health implications of Ecstasy include Neurotoxicity, an early decline in mental function and memory, or the onset of Alzheimer-type symptoms."
Costa was in full alarmist mode during his Monday interview, warning Reuters that ATS drugs are "publicly enemy number one." And they are insidious. "These are terrifying narcotics because they are subtle -- they kill the brain rather than the heart," he said. "The problem is that few people die from using synthetic drugs. There are no scary headlines of people dying of overdoses. Instead, there is a slow mental deterioration -- danger by stealth."
Damn, if we could only get some overdoses! Hmmm, maybe if we had Dr. Ricaurte administer the drugs...
Visit http://www.unodc.org/unodc/publications/report_ats_2003-09-23_1.html to read the UNODC report online.