The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 2, Issue No. 3 pages 93-108
© 2001 CENTER FOR COGNITIVE LIBERTY AND ETHICS
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946

 

 

 

 

Global Illicit Drug Trends 2001

On July 3, 2001 the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) issued its annual report on “Global Illicit Drug Trends.” Among other things, the report is interesting for its global perspective on drug use, its incorporation of the role of technology, as well as its special report on “Clandestine Synthetic Drugs” including MDMA (Ecstasy) and LSD.

The present report is based on data obtained primarily from the annual reports questionnaire (ARQ) sent by Governments to UNDCP in 2000, supplemented by other sources when necessary, and where available.

The following are excerpts from the report. The full report can be obtained from: United Nations Publications, Room DC2-0853, Dept. 143, New York, N.Y. 10017, Tel: (800) 253-9646, (212) 963-8302, Fax: (212) 963-3489. In Europe call 41 (22) 917-2614, or fax 41 (22) 917-0027, E-mail: publications@un.org.

The full report is also available on the Web at:

http://www.undcp.org/world_drug_report.html

—Ed.

Introduction


In contrast to the long history of abuse of plant-based drugs such as heroin and cocaine, it is only over the past decade that the ‘synthetic drug phenomenon,’ i.e., the widespread recreational use of certain psychoactive drugs by a mostly young consumer population, frequently as part of a certain life-style or sub-cultural group identity, has become an issue of global concern. While it is now clear that certain clandestine synthetic drugs are rapidly spreading around the globe, there are still considerable differences in the magnitude of the problem, both in geographical terms, as well as with regard to consumer populations.

 

Clandestine Synthetic Drugs: Evolution of a Problem

While the aims of the pharmaceutical industry are to develop safer medications or to increase specificity for a given type of desired therapeutic effect, the goal of clandestine manufacturers is to create substances with pharmacological profiles that are sought after by the user population. Clandestine manufacturers are also driven by the desire to create substances that fall outside national and/or international control regimes in order to circumvent existing laws and to avoid prosecution.

 

Clandestine Synthetic Drugs vis-à-vis Plant-based Drugs

On the demand side, several factors influence the final decision of a user to choose a particular drug. The pharmacological characteristics of the drug itself, i.e., the sought-after effects of the drug weighed against its undesirable side effects and risks, inasmuch as they are known to the user, probably play a significant role. Similarly, the suitability of a drug for administration routes other than by intravenous injection and, increasingly, methods other than smoking, also seem to be contributing factors. Other elements include cultural, social and economic considerations, the image and social representation of individual drugs, and the availability/accessibility of alternative substances. The situation is, therefore, more complex on the demand side than the supply side, and consumer preferences may change over time.

Intrinsic characteristics of synthetic drugs contributing to their attractiveness to consumers vis-à-vis the traditional plant-based drugs:

(i) many synthetic drugs can be taken by mouth. In addition to being ‘convenient’ for the user, the use of pills also avoids injection or smoking and the dangers or social stigma associated with these administration routes;

(ii) compared to heroin and cocaine, the use of which has been stigmatized among drug users as well as the general public, the recreational use of synthetic drugs, is generally perceived as being less harmful, and controllable. Since several synthetic drugs are used to enhance performance or cope with difficult/unpleasant situations (tension, stress, depression, and so on), they are often perceived as being beneficial to the individual rather than destructive;

(iii) with the internationalization of societies and in an increasingly technology-oriented world, synthetic drugs are frequently seen as representations of technological advances, of modernism, affluence and success.

 

The Development of a Trend—
Demand Pull or Supply Push?

 

For synthetic drugs, on a global scale, most new trends emerged in western countries, notably the United States, and then gradually spread to less developed countries. (An exception to this trend is methathinone (ephedrine), and ATS which was seen in 1982 in St. Petersburg about ten years before it made its first appearance in the US. Also the current wave of ‘ecstasy’1 consumption in the context of the club and dance culture emerged in Europe, and has only hit the United States much later. )

Globalization and the internationalization of societies appear to have contributed to creating an environment conducive to the spread of clandestine synthetic drugs, both from the supply and the demand point of view. On the demand side, there are at least three phenomena that can be observed over the last decade:

(i) changes in social structures in many societies around the world, which lead, among other things, to an emphasis on individual success and performance;

(ii) a growing global trend towards fashionable life-styles, short-lived amusement and a ‘consumption culture’ which trusts in ‘pills’ as universal remedies; and

(iii) the spread of modern communication technology.

 

The media industry and modern communication technology, in particular the Internet, enable fashions to become increasingly global and expand public access to specific information on various drugs, including their effects, where to get them, and the comparison of prices.

 

From the Demand Perspective

Today’s situation with regard to the consumption of psychoactive drugs for recreational purposes can be seen in the social context of the ‘mass culture’ of the youth of the 1990s. Synthetic drug consumption since the beginning of the 1990s has not been associated with distinct social classes of drug users, nor does it appear to have any political dimension. Instead, pleasure-seeking, amusement and fun in a controlled way without any perceived impact on work performance, seem to be at the heart of the drug culture in many countries. As such, consumption of certain psychoactive drugs has become a mass phenomenon: school children and college and high-school students are growing up in an environment where their availability has become the norm. Certain synthetic drugs have become an integral part of mainstream youth culture in many countries where they are used as representations of a fashionable life-style. Among wide sectors of increasingly younger segments of the population of all social strata, synthetic drugs seem to be values for facilitating communication, socializing with others and for creating a sense of belonging and integration. This is particularly true for the drugs with predominantly stimulant effects which were originally associated with the dance culture. However, the individual drug—or its specific pharmacological effect—might often be less important to the users than the role it plays as a component of a certain lifestyle.

 

‘Lifestyle Products’

One facet of contemporary consumption culture is the rapidly increasing demand for products which enable people to manage their lives more easily. A vast number of so-called lifestyle products are now available, usually in the form of pills, which can be easily swallowed. They are alleged to increase both the mental and physical well-being of the user, and enable him/her to cope with a variety of ‘lifestyle’ problems. For instance, the need to enhance mental performance, i.e. concentration, cognition or memory, is reflected in the increasing popularity of so-called ‘smart drugs.’ ‘Smart drugs’ or ‘cognition enhancers’ refer to a group of substances ranging from mixtures of vitamins, minerals and amino acids to pharmaceutical drugs used to treat memory loss associated with ageing. They act by increasing the blood flow to the brain, or by boosting the levels of certain neurotransmitters which play a role in learning and memory. In addition to stimulant effects (like energy drinks), ‘smart products’ can also have relaxing effects. Use of ‘slimming pills,’ anabolic steroids and doping agents also reflect the need to conform with certain popularly-held views, norms and behaviours. Some authors go even so far as to include Viagra, a prescription medication used to treat certain forms of sexual impotence, in this category, since its popularity can be attributed to the same driving forces behind many of today’s lifestyle drugs. Irrational (and frequently unethical) marketing of certain licit medications may thus create an environment where consumption of ‘pills,’ licit or illicit, is perceived as a panacea to cope with any of the stressful problems of modern life.

 

Synthetic Drugs

In terms of pharmacological effects, the current requirements of the synthetic drug market translate into only a few drug classes. These are substances that increase performance, enhance or alter sensory perception and/or facilitate inter-personal communication, and help socializing with others. Current youth values do not seem to favour synthetic drugs with calming effects, which tend to isolate the user. For the (sub) culture phenomena closely related to the dance drug scene, the overall pharmacology of drugs used continues to be the same, namely a combination of stimulation and enhancement of sensory perception. Apart from their pharmacological effects, the intrinsic characteristics of the substances themselves which also contribute to their suitability for a given consumer population, include the speed of onset and the duration of effects. Considering the current fashion of dance or lifestyle drugs, the duration of action of an ‘ideal’ future synthetic drug should not be too long, ideally a few hours; it should not produce a ‘hangover’ the following day, and it should meet the criterion of oral bioavailability, i.e., it must be effective when taken by mouth, perhaps by smoking, although the social acceptance of smoking is steadily declining in several societies.

While not all synthetic drugs meet those criteria, many Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS) do, and in view of the reputation and social acceptance some established drugs have gained on the dance drug market, it can be expected that they will continue to be available, and that they will spread increasingly outside the dance scene. The reputation, in particular, for ecstasy has resulted in several other substances being marketed under that name, and the term ‘ecstasy’ has increasingly become synonymous with a recreational drug in the dosage form of a tablet. While some of the substances offered for marketing purposed under the name ‘ecstasy’ are also available as separate entities under their own names like amphetamine and LSD, several others, especially chemically- and pharmacologically-related substances, lack a separate market and consumer identity. Another drug which may experience faster and widespread abuse in the future is gamma-hydroxygutyrate, of GHB. Although structurally unrelated to ATS, GHB was introduced into the market by successfully using the ‘ecstasy analogy’ marketing concept. It is know to users as ‘liquid ecstasy,’ or ‘the ultimate drug,’ which is said to produce euphoric and hallucinogenic effects, to enhance sexual pleasure an to have no ‘come-down’ effect.

In an environment of constant change in terms of availability of drugs, where a large number of drugs and drug combinations are available simultaneously, polydrug use is common. Such drug use involves the deliberate combination of drugs to alter, strengthen or prolong certain effects, or to alleviate the after-effects of the main drug used. Another aspect is the combination of illicit drugs with certain licit pharmaceuticals, in particular those which slow the metabolic breakdown of the illicit drug in the body, thus prolonging and/or enhancing its effects. The added risks which such consumption patterns bear are significant, and can even be fatal, as there may be unpredictable interactions with other therapeutic agents and even normal biochemical processes in the body.

 

Other Classes of Synthetic Drugs

The range of drugs which provide the effects favoured by current ‘youth cultures,’ and which are frequently used simultaneously, extends from ecstasy and related substances to stimulants and hallucinogens. In terms of substance classes which may attract attention by consumers in the recreational drug scene, hallucinogens will continue to be strong candidates. The past has shown that ecstasy use may be followed by hallucinogen use as a consequence of users finding the effects of ecstasy insufficiently attractive. They then turn either to mixtures containing hallucinogens or directly to hallucinogens. In this context, the resurgence of LSD in the mid-1990s should not be disregarded. LSD appeals to the younger market because it is frequently easy to obtain, often cheap to purchase, and produces a lasting high. Since LSD is now usually available at a much lower strength per dosage unit that in the 1960s, it many also trigger the spread of other mild hallucinogens among young consumers. One group of hallucinogens which may become more popular is the tryptamines. They provide brief and intense ‘trips’ when smoked or injected, and although some of them have been banned in most countries since the early 1970s, there are reports that some party drug users are experimenting with tryptamines as an alternative to LSD. However, there are drawbacks to tryptamines, including their mode of administration. Some of them have to be smoked, snorted, or injected in order to be pharmacologically effective. In addition, many of them, at common dose levels, are far more hallucinogenic in nature than ecstasy. They many therefore not appeal as much to the youth culture as other party drugs, unless their pharmacological drawback is balanced by a relatively low price.

 

Geographical Trends

In geographical terms, the demand for performance-enhancing and dance drugs can be expected to spread along with improvements in standard of living, stronger buying power an free-market economies. The growth of a middle class, accompanied by a growing interest in imported fashions may make certain communities vulnerable to the use of synthetic drugs. Within individual regions or countries, synthetic drug use can be expected to spread both vertically and horizontally, i.e., from higher to lower social strata and from larger cities to towns and rural areas. Falling prices, as a consequence of an expansion of the market, may further contribute to this development.

Western Europe has been the world’s major illicit manufacturing region for amphetamine and ecstasy-type substances during most of the last decade. There are now also indications that clandestine manufacturers in South-East Asia may soon be able to produce high quality ‘ecstasy’ comparable to that imported from Europe. As a consequence, prices can be expected to go down, thus making the drug affordable to larger segments of society. This may be a concern particularly in China, where seizure data indicate that the country has become important as a point of distribution of various synthetic drugs.

A similar trend to that seen in South-East Asia may eventually also emerge in some Latin American countries, where demand for ‘ecstasy’ is already evolving. Africa, by contrast, with the exception of South Africa, does not appear to face a risk of a major clandestine synthetic drug manufacture in the immediate future, as the situation in that region is still characterized by the availability of pharmaceutical drugs through unregulated channels (parallel markets).

‘Ecstasy’ and related ATS have already been spreading in countries of South and South-East Asia. In China, for instance, and more specifically in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Canton, and in the ‘special economic zones’, demand for synthetic drugs is rising in night-clubs, dance-halls or Karaoke bars. For similar reasons, i.e., because of their modern image and their generally lower prices compared to traditional drugs, synthetic drugs can also be expected to continue spreading in eastern Europe. Demand for synthetic drugs may also furthers increase in several countries in South America, where ‘ecstasy’ has recently become fashionable among youth.

 

From the Supply Perspective

On the supply side, synthetic drugs enable clandestine chemists to follow developments in a consumer market which is subject to trends of fashion and in which the individual drug plays less of a role compared to the rituals/myths surrounding its use. While staying within the confines of consumer acceptance and preferences, a clandestine chemist will tend, within a group of related substances, to synthesize the drugs which carry the highest profits and have the lowest risks of detection.

 

Drug Type

The only other pharmacological drug class which, like the ATS, lends itself to structural modification (and which may also be attractive in the immediate future from the consumers’ point of view), are the hallucinogenic tryptamines. Although their synthesis is usually more complex than ATS synthesis, the availability of the book TIHKAL, in the same way as PIHKAL (and other similar underground ‘recipe’ books), may contribute to new trends in the future.

 

Alexander Shulgin and the PIHKAL/ TIHKAL Dilemma

PIHKAL and TIHKAL are two books published by Alexander and Ann Shulgin in 1991 and 1997 respectively. Detailed descriptions of the pharmacology and chemistry of phenethylamines and tryptamines are interwoven with autobiographical details about the authors. For almost 30 years, Alexander Shulgin synthesized and evaluated, mainly through self-monitoring, a broad range of psychoactive substances. The first book, PIHKAL, is based on his life’s research into the effects of phenethylamines in human beings, hence the acronym in the title which stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved (TIHKAL, by analogy, stands for Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved). While valued by some psychotherapists for providing first-hand accounts of the use of a number of psychoactive compounds, the level of detail—which affords the reader a realistic feeling for the effects of the compounds described—worries drug control authorities, who fear that the descriptions could encourage drug use. Of even more concern is the fact that the books offer quasi-encyclopedic compendiums of dosages, durations of action, and syntheses in recipe form for almost 200 chemical compounds of the class of phenethylamines and for more than 50 tryptamines. There is thus justifiable concern that the availability of PIHKAL and TIHKAL may bring a whole range of new substances and precursors to the attention of both consumers and illicit producers. Manufactured under clandestine laboratory conditions, the ‘quality’ of the substances is very likely to be dissimilar to those described by Shulgin; low purity, presence of impurities and insufficient testing of these street products are major contributors to the considerable health risks they pose for consumers.

‘Product Design’ and ‘Marketing Concepts’

Since the recreational synthetic drug market is flexible and driven to a large extent by fashion, marketing concepts are of great importance. Based on the rather scattered evidence available, it can be expected that future clandestine chemists will be even more sensitive to the perceptions and needs of their clients, for example, by exploiting the closeness in appearance to legitimate products. To this end, they will continue to promote the tablet as a dosage form, and avoid the marketing of powders or liquids which need to be smoked, snorted or injected, and which lack the convenience and more benign image of ‘pills.’ Some law enforcement authorities also expect that in the future, in addition to the instructions on ‘proper’ use available on the Internet, some kind of written ‘customer information’ may be provided together with the drug.

Increasingly, ‘new’ drugs on the street are actually preexisting drugs with new names and alternative marketing. This usually involves taking an existing synthetic drug of low quality and simply modifying its appearance (colour and /or texture). A well-known example is ‘ice,’ a particularly pure form of d-methamphetamine hydrochloride suitable for smoking. Adding food colouring is another simple marketing gimmick used in an attempt to differentiate various substances or to suggest to consumers and certain composition and quality or a given product. Moreover, combinations of drugs may be given a new name or may be marketed as a cocktail of drugs.

 

Understanding the Phenomenon

 

While for decades the drug phenomenon was equated with the classical drugs of abuse, notably heroin and cocaine, there is now a new challenge in the form of synthetic drugs. This latest drug phenomenon is characterized by the recreational use of a number of synthetic psychoactive substances by a socially-integrated, mostly youth, consumer population. Commonly held views about the harmlessness of those substances, and about their ‘value’ in helping to manage one’s life more easily, or to experience pleasure and amusement in a controllable way without impacting on work performance, have contributed to their global spread, as has their association with technological advancements, modernism, and affluence. Economic models and societal norms and values emphasizing performance and individual success explain current pharmacological preferences and the attractiveness of substances which can be used to increase performance, to enhance or alter sensory perception and/or to facilitate inter-personal communication and social interaction.

Globalization and the emergence of performance-oriented societies in an increasing number of countries around the world seem to be drawing a growing number of people, particularly the young, to seek comfort and pleasure in synthetic drugs. This trend may be accelerated by a supply ‘push’ inasmuch as clandestine manufacturers may explore the area of synthetic drugs further once they have recognized the potential inherent in the market: products can be tailor-made to satisfy consumer needs, and changes in fashion and consumer preferences can be responded to quickly. Considering the specificities of demand and supply of synthetic drugs together, there is thus good reason to anticipate an expansion of the synthetic drug phenomenon beyond the confines of certain sub-cultural or social groups to wider sections of society and to geographical areas where manufacture, trafficking and/or consumption have been hitherto unknown. Modern communication technology such as the Internet plays a critical role in this development by linking the world in terms of preferences and drug consumption patterns, and by rapidly and globally disseminating information of synthetic drugs and recipes for their manufacture. The potential therefore exists for synthetic drugs, in particular ATS, to become one of the major global concerns for drug control in the twenty-first century. Growing pressure to eliminate or significantly reduce coca and opium poppy cultivation may also contribute to this development.

 

Reducing demand

 

In view of the widespread availability of certain synthetic drugs and the integration of their use in mainstream youth culture and leisure-time activities, prevention programmes tailored to specificities of the phenomenon (young age of consumer population, perceived harmlessness, etc) and integrated into the wider concept of health promotion, can be considered key elements in any approach or strategy to reduce demand for clandestine synthetic drugs over the longer term.

 

Consumption

 

Assessing the extent of drug abuse (the number of drug abusers) is a particularly difficult undertaking because it involves measuring the size of a hidden population. Margins of error are thus considerable, and tend to multiply as the scale of estimation is raised, from local to country, regional and global levels.

The estimates show that worldwide the most widely consumed substances are cannabis (144 million people), followed by amphetamine-type stimulants (29 million people), cocaine (14 million people) and opiates (13.5 million people of whom some 9 million are taking heroin). The total number of drug users was estimated at some 180 million people, equivalent to 3% of the global population or 4.2% of the population age 15 and above. As drug users frequently take more than one substance, it should be noted that the total is not identical with the sum of the individual drug categories.

Cannabis is the most widely consumed drug worldwide. UNDCP estimates show that 3.4% of the global population (age 15 and above) used cannabis in the late 1990s.

About 0.1% of the global population (age 15 and above) consume ecstasy.

Improving the knowledge base

In order to tackle an area as dynamic as the synthetic drug market in a comprehensive and pro-active manner on both the demand and the supply sides, a better understanding of the factors driving its evolution is required. Systematic investigations of the way that attitudes and perspectives of youth are affected by rapid social and economic changes and more detailed examinations of the complex interplay between demand and supply of individual synthetic drugs or drug classes, and how they relate to different geographical and cultural contexts are needed. Driving forces on the supply side will be better understood once the question of the impact of progress in science on the emergence of new synthetic drugs has been investigated. However, in view of the epidemic and global dimensions of synthetic drug use by young people, more systematic research into the (long-term) health consequences of synthetic drug use will be one of the most important and challenging areas of future work. This will allow for drawing together the diverging perceptions of synthetic drug use being seen as a blessing for some and a curse for others.

The findings from such investigations could contribute to improving the design of health education and prevention programmes as well as treatment services which meet the needs of (recreational) synthetic drug users. But such findings are also crucial for an assessment of the wider health and social implications of specific consumption patterns of synthetic drugs, now and particularly for the future. While research on ecstasy, for example, has for some time suggested cognitive, behavioural and emotional alterations in users, and suggestive evidence of human neurotoxicity has emerged during the past decade, it was only recently that the dose-dependent (cumulative) nature of the neuro-psychological deficits was confirmed in a larger sample of ecstasy users. Since the current status of knowledge does not exclude possible long-term consequences on cognitive functioning, it is thus only further systematic and unbiased research that can help to answer one of the most worrying questions, namely whether current consumption patterns of certain synthetic drugs by young people will precipitate or exacerbate neurological problems, and whether we should expect that a whole generation of elderly, former synthetic drug users will in future suffer from a decline in mental functioning, much earlier or more pronounced than that associated with the normal ageing process.

Notes

1. Throughout this report, the term “ecstasy” is used to describe any group of related substances which are sold on the streets as “ecstasy”; ecstasy refers to the chemical substance MDMA.

 

 

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