The number of people addicted to drugs across the world has risen for the first time in six years, the UN says. It also says heroin is making a comeback in some Western countries, with often deadly results.
In its annual World Drug Report issued on Thursday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said there were now more than 29 million people suffering from drug use disorders worldwide, well up on the 27 million reported a year ago.
UNODC said the rise resulted in part from an increased consumption of heroin in North America and some parts of western and central Europe.
“Heroin continues to be the drug that kills the most people and this resurgence must be addressed urgently,” said Yury Fedotov, the head of UNODC, in the report.
The report said that heroin was still plentifully available across the world despite a 38-percent fall in global opium production, with traffickers building up massive stockpiles over the past few years from previous bountiful harvests. It said customs in Italy and France had recorded higher numbers of seizures, pointing to a rise in heroin shipments to Europe.
Some 17 million drug users are addicted to opiates, which include heroin, opium and morphine. The UNODC report said opium-derived substances continued to pose the greatest threat to health among the major drugs.
Asia remained the world’s largest market for opiates, the report said, with an estimated two-thirds of all users living in that region.
However, the report showed cannabis as remaining the most commonly used drug across the world.
Although the number of drug-related deaths has remained stable since 2014, when some 207,000 such fatalities were reported, the UNODC website described the figure as “unacceptable,” saying such deaths were preventable if adequate measures were taken.
However, in a positive development, the UN agency said the global cocaine market appeared to be “shrinking,” with consumption in the US and Europe continuing to fall despite a massive increase in output from Colombia, the world’s top coca producer.
The report also highlighted connections between drug addiction and social problems such as poverty and violence.
It comes on the heels of a UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem (UNGASS) in April, which came up with several recommendations for concrete action.
“By providing a comprehensive overview of major developments in drug markets, trafficking routes and the health impact of drug use, the 2016 World Drug report highlights support for the comprehensive, balanced and integrated rights-based approaches as reflected in the outcome document which emerged from the UNGASS, ” UNODC head Fedotov noted.
Germany, the original drug lab
Off to war
The Nazis sent doped-up soldiers to the front in Poland in 1939 and to France the following year. During the invasion of France, a whopping 35 million tablets of the methamphetamine Pervitin were distributed to soldiers, who named the miracle pill “Panzerschokolade” (“tank chocolate”). It wasn’t just the Germans, however: the Allies gave their troops drugs, too.
Alert and fearless
A Japanese chemist created a liquid version of what was to become the German Wehrmacht’s miracle pill. The Berlin-based drug firm Temmler refined the drug and took out a patent in 1937. A year later, Pervitin was sold over the counter. It left people alert, fearless, and without need of food or drink. Pervitin is still on the market – illegally – and under a different name: Crystal Meth.
His own best customer?
Historians disagree over whether the Führer himself was addicted to Pervitin. Files kept by Hitler’s personal doctor, Theo Morell, show a scribbled “x” in reference to a cocktail of medication he was given on any given day – but it isn’t exactly clear what it refers to. We do know, though, that Hitler was on a mix of powerful drugs.
“Miracle drug” Heroin
German chemists’ inventive talents go back even further than the Nazi era, however. “No cough thanks to heroin,” was the ad slogan for a cough medicine produced by the German drug company Bayer in the late 19th century. Heroin was prescribed to patients – adults and children – suffering from epilepsy, asthma, schizophrenia and heart disease. Any side effects? Bayer listed constipation
Felix Hoffmann is perhaps best known for inventing Aspirin. But that’s not all. He also developed heroin while experimenting with acetic acid. Hoffmann combined the acid with morphine, an extract from the poppy pod. Heroin was legal in Germany until 1971 when it was finally outlawed.
Cocaine for opthamologists
In 1862, the Darmstadt-based firm Merck started producing large amounts of cocaine as a local anesthetic for ophthalmologists. German chemist, Albert Niemann, had previously isolated an alkaloid he named cocaine from South American coca leaves. Niemann died shortly after discovering cocaine – of lung problems.
Euphoria and vitality
Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the “father of psychoanalysis,” consumed cocaine for scientific purposes. In his Cocaine Papers study, Freud described the drug as harmless. He observed “euphoria, more vitality and [a] capacity for work.” His enthusiasm waned, however, after a friend died of an overdose. At that time doctors prescribed cocaine for headaches and stomach problems.
American chemist, Alexander Shulgin, is widely believed to have invented the party drug ecstasy. But in reality, he rediscovered the compound. The German firm Merck had originally developed and filed for a patent for a colorless oil under the name 3,4-Methylendioxymethamphetamine – MDMA – in 1912. Back then, chemists thought the substance had no commercial value.
The past casts a long shadow
These German chemists’ inventions are still having an impact today. According to estimates by the United Nations about 190,000 people died worldwide in 2013 because of illegal drug consumption. However, alcohol, a legal drug, is responsible for far more deaths. The WHO says 5.9 percent of all deaths in 2012 were due to alcohol consumption – that’s 3.3 million people.