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Illicit Drug Use Is Highest in Wealthier Countries

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One in 20 people worldwide use illicit drugs every year, with those in wealthier nations more likely to do so, according to a new paper in a series on addiction published in the journal Lancet.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates cannabis use was the highest in Australia and New Zealand with up to 15 percent of those between 15 and 64 years of age using the drug, while opioid use including heroin was highest in the Middle East. Australia and New Zealand again topped the list for the use of amphetamines including speed and crystal meth, and North America has the highest percentage of cocaine users.

In 2004, the World Health Organization attributed 250,000 deaths worldwide to illicit drug use. That’s far less than the 2.25 million due to alcohol use and the 5.1 million due to tobacco use, but it’s still troubling. Taking into account that substances like cannabis cause very few deaths, drug users are far more likely to have a shorter lifespan than those who smoke or drink too much, and the toll on nations in terms of lost productivity is great.

How to deal with the problem is less clear, but study co-author Louisa Degenhardt of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre said the popularity of illicit drugs was linked to cost and supply: “There’s more that we need to understand about that, but we think that, particularly for occasional users, if drug prices go up then their level of use goes down.”

As a whole, the researchers concluded that intelligent policy responses to drug problems need better data for the prevalence of different types of illicit drug use and the global harm it causes, adding, “This need is especially urgent in high-income countries with substantial rates of illicit drug use and in low-income and middle-income countries close to illicit drug production areas.”

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