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close this bookIllicit Drugs: Social Impacts and Policy Responses (UNRISD, 1994, 19 p.)
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View the documentUNRISD
View the documentSUMMARY
View the documentINTRODUCTION
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View the documentPRODUCTION
View the documentTRAFFICKING
View the documentCONSUMPTION
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View the documentCONCLUSIONS


Collecting reliable data on the consumption of illicit drugs is difficult, as governments and individuals are reluctant to give out such information. While consumption is rapidly spreading all over the world, the highest per capita use is reported to be in Canada and the United States. In the latter alone, consumer spending on narcotics is thought to exceed the combined gross domestic products of more than 80 developing countries. Eastern Europe has also experienced increases in illicit drug demand due to the socio-economic crisis, high unemployment and easing of border controls.

It is clear that regular or high levels of consumption of most illicit drugs have a range of adverse effects on the individual. Illicit drugs affect an individual’s health, financial position, productivity and social relations. Drug use can cause birth defects, poor parent-child relations and neuro-biological collapse from overdose with attendant hospital costs. It can also adversely affect the classroom performance and psychological development of adolescents.

A consideration of the broader socio-economic and political effects of consumption revolves around an understanding of when self harm constitutes social harm. Most of the problems drugs create for individuals also imply social and economic overhead costs, particularly those associated with medical care, welfare and other social services. In terms of society’s interests, acute or chronic consumption is clearly more harmful than occasional consumption, and use of drugs by many people is more harmful than use by a few. The consumption of a moderate amount of alcohol or cannabis may produce little social harm, whereas excessive consumption may lead to disasters for others as well as for the user. With “harder” drugs - heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine the public implications are potentially more severe. Crack cocaine addiction has become a particularly serious public policy concern in the United States, where cocaine-related emergency ward admissions have increased, with the public often bearing the financial burden.

The economic costs of drug consumption can be categorized as direct and indirect. Direct costs include increased state expenditure on police, courts, military, treatment programmes and welfare payments, as well as business expenditures on security measures. Indirect economic costs include the displacement of legal industries, decreased control over the economy, and fiscal problems related to an inability to tax the drug economy.

The relationship between the injection of drugs and HIV transmission has become a major concern in many parts of the world, both in the industrialized countries and in many poor countries lying either in drug producing areas or along drug trans-shipment routes. Major outbreaks of HIV infection have occurred in areas such as Manipur in north-east India, Myanmar, Ruili in southern China and Thailand. Women and children who are not themselves drug users may also be affected by problems related to drug abusing men, including HIV infection.

Drug Consumption and Crime

There is obviously a relationship between drug consumption and crime, although it is often not clear which is cause and which is effect. In principal consuming areas such as North America and Western Europe, psycho-pharmacological effects, economic-compulsive drives and systemic violence are considered the principal components of the drugs-crime link.

The most harmful psycho-pharmacological effects of drug use, particularly those associated with crack cocaine, involve people becoming irrational, excited, agitated or impulsive. Users may become unable to control their anger and vent it in the form of physical assault, including homicide. In one of the first studies clearly linking violent behaviour and crack cocaine use, it was reported that nearly half the callers to a nationwide cocaine hotline in the United States said they had committed violent crimes or aggressive acts (including child abuse, murder, robbery, rape and physical assault) while using crack.

The economic-compulsive dimension of drug-related crime is associated with criminal acts to obtain funding for personal drug consumption (through burglaries, for instance). The systemic dimension refers to the activities of drug syndicates, associations, gangs and smugglers involved in protecting their product from law enforcement officials or from each other by whatever means necessary. A fourth dimension could be added to this standard analysis - the “corruption-criminality” connection, which occurs when administrative and political personnel such as drug enforcement agents and border patrol officers themselves become allied with the drug trade.

Why Is Global Consumption Increasing?

Whether drug abuse is a cause or an effect of social problems is central to the question of why global consumption of illicit drugs is increasing. How far drug abuse contributes to or is a symptom of high unemployment, breakdown in family structure and poor living conditions is a constant source of debate. High rates of unemployment tend to occur in the age range of those most likely to use drugs, while young people who have been associated with drugs find it even more difficult to obtain productive employment.

While families can have a powerful influence on shaping the attitudes, values and behaviour of children, it is commonly believed that peers can have an even stronger influence on drug use during the formative years of youth. As families come under pressure either through parental failures, rapidly changing cultures or economically imposed hardships, children look for alternative forms of association, such as youth gangs. Some youth gangs have become “family” for street children in Bangkok, Lima, Los Angeles, New York, SPaulo and other cities. To survive, these children frequently turn to drugs, violence and theft, all of which may be attached to ritualized ceremonies of belonging and obligation. Once part of a drug subculture, they become more marginalized from mainstream society, adopting new values that reinforce drug taking practices.

Supplies of illicit drugs in many areas have become cheaper and more plentiful despite attempts to suppress crop production. Grower and trafficker counter-strategies have been more than sufficient to maintain ample supplies on the market. At the same time, more addictive forms of drugs, such as crack cocaine, have been developed. The ready availability of such drugs makes consumption all the more difficult to suppress.