Cocaine use in South America has risen over the past decade, with Argentina recording one of the highest increases, the United Nations said this week.
The latest annual report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that around 1.6 percent of the population aged 15 to 64 in South America (equivalent to 4.7 million people) used cocaine in 2021, with Argentines leading the podium, followed by Chileans and Uruguayans.
“South American countries have reported varying trends in the prevalence of cocaine use over the past decade, with the largest increase reported by Argentina,” wrote the study’s authors.
“However, because the percentages analysed are relatively small, ranging between 0.5 and 2 percent of the adult population in countries with available household survey data over the past decade, statistical uncertainty has to be considered in the interpretation of the trend,” they added. “While in some countries, the prevalence of cocaine use seems to be relatively stable, it may be increasing in other countries.”
The UN said that its estimate of 1.6 percent was “significantly higher than estimates for 2010,” when it stood at 0.7 percent, or some 1.8 million users.
Despite its findings, the report’s authors called for governments to adopt an improved focus on drug consumption, warning that many nations had failed to provide accurate and up-to-date statistics.
Chile is the only country with survey data available for 2020, when it observed a decline in cocaine use, UNODC said.
“This trend was described as a large decrease of more than 10 percent and concerned all types of cocaine products. However, two subsequent large-scale nationwide online studies showed that the decrease had been short-lived, with cocaine use in Chile in 2021 returning to roughly the same level as before the Covid-19 pandemic,” it added.
The report also highlighted that Argentina was among the countries witnessing a "recent trend" in the emergence of NPS, or New Psychoactive Substances (analogues of existing
controlled drugs or newly synthesised chemicals designed to mimic the psychoactive effects of controlled drugs with hallucinogenic effects).
"El Salvador, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil have recorded such developments, and Argentina and Colombia have reported detection of similar compounds," the UN says. "The relatively high proportion of NPS with hallucinogenic effects on the drug market is a peculiarity of these subregions. Many of these NPS are marketed as LSD,” it concluded.
Ukraine war could boost illegal drug production
The United Nations also warned of the impact of the war in Ukraine on illegal drug production worldwide, adding that the opium market's future hinges on the fate of crisis-wracked Afghanistan.
Previous experience from the Middle East and Southeast Asia suggests conflict zones can act as a "magnet" for making synthetic drugs, which can be manufactured anywhere, said UNODC.
The UNODC said the number of dismantled amphetamine laboratories in Ukraine rose from 17 in 2019 to 79 in 2020 – the highest number of seized laboratories reported in any country in 2020. Ukraine's capacity to produce synthetic drugs could grow as the war continues, it added.
The report also noted that conflict could shift and disrupt drug-trafficking routes, with suggestions that trafficking in Ukraine has fallen since early 2022.
The situation in Afghanistan – which produced 86 percent of the world's opium in 2021 – will shape the development of the opiate market, the UN report added. It said the country's humanitarian crisis could incentivise illegal opium poppy cultivation, even after the Taliban authorities banned the practice in April.
The UNODC report was based on information gathered from member states, its own sources, and analysing institutional reports, the media and open-source material.
Other key findings
More users: An estimated 284 million people used a drug in 2021 – that’s 1 in every 18 people or 5.5 percent of the world's population. The figure was 26 percent higher than in 2010, with population growth only partially accounting for the change. Consumption levels among young people are higher than past generations.
Tobacco vs. drugs: In 2019, some 12 million deaths worldwide were related to the use of psychoactive substances. Drugs accounted for five percent of these deaths, compared to 73.1 percent for tobacco and 21.5 percent for alcohol – legal substances that are much easier to access.
Cannabis most popular: With 209 million users, cannabis was again the most popular drug in the world in 2020. During the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying lockdown, frequency and quantity of marijuana consumed increased, but not the number of users.
Cocaine boom: Global production of cocaine rose by 11 percent in 2020 from the previous year's record, reaching 1,982 tonnes. There are indications that last year there was a rebound in consumption, after a drop during the pandemic, due to the fact that it is a drug that is consumed in social situations. In 2020, some 21.5 million people used the drug.