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Drug Abuse & Demand Reduction

Drug abuse is a global phenomenon. It effects almost every country, although its extent and characteristics differ from region to region. Drug abuse trends around the world, especially among youth, have started to converge over the last few decades.
The most widely consumed drug worldwide is cannabis. Three-quarters of all countries report abuse of heroin and two-thirds report abuse of cocaine. Drug-related problems include increased rates of crime and violence, susceptibility to HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, demand for treatment and emergency room visits and a breakdown in social behaviour.

Demand reduction strategies seek to prevent the onset of drug use, help drug users break the habit and provide treatment through rehabilitation and social reintegration.

At the 1998 UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem, Member States recognized that reducing the demand for drugs was an essential pillar in the stepped-up global effort to fight drug abuse and trafficking. They committed themselves to reduce significantly both the supply of and demand for drugs by 2008, as expressed in the Political Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction (PDF).

Drugs of Abuse: the Facts

Reliable and up-to-date information on selected drugs of abuse, including drug histories, how they are ingested, effects on the mind and body and medical uses, if any.

Global Assessment Programme on Drug Abuse

To reduce or eliminate drug abuse, governments and UNODC need up-to-date statistics on who is taking drugs and why. The Global Assessment Programme on Drug Abuse (GAP) was launched in 1998. GAP has established one global and nine regional systems to collect reliable and internationally comparable drug abuse data and to assess the magnitude and patterns of drug abuse at the country, regional and global levels.

Partners in Prevention

Drug abuse cuts across age, class, ethnic and gender lines. By working with grass-roots groups, private businesses and other community partners, UNODC supports projects addressing the needs of specific populations, such as street children and those trying to cope with neglect, violence and sexual abuse. These strategies help disadvantaged groups to avoid high-risk behaviour and settings that give rise to a range of problems, including the use of illicit drugs and alcohol.

Access to Treatment and Rehabilitation

People with drug abuse problems have different needs. Women, the young, the poor, refugees and ethnic and religious minorities need easier access to early intervention and services. Once in treatment, drug abusers may need job training and referral, assistance in finding housing and reintegrating into society. Drug abusers who commit crimes require alternative treatment in order to break the cycle of drug abuse and crime.
Global Youth Network
The Global Youth Network project is creating a network of participatory youth organizations that work for drug abuse prevention. Our activities include experience-sharing meetings, how-to guides on innovative techniques on drug abuse prevention written for and by young people and an active e-mail listserv. The Youth Network web site also provides an on-line resource for groups who want to improve their projects or who want to start new drug abuse prevention programmes.
HIV/AIDS Prevention
At the end of 2002, an estimated 42 million people around the world were living with HIV/AIDS. During the same year, five million new infections were reported, while the epidemic claimed and estimated 3.1 million lives. One third of the people living with HIV/AIDS are between 15 and 24 years old. Injecting drug abuse is among the major forces driving the epidemic, attributing to around five per cent of HIV transmission. UNODC, a cosponsor of UNAIDS since 1999, has been mainstreaming HIV/AIDS prevention into its demand reduction activities globally, with an emphasis on promoting skills development and helping young people live a healthy, drug-free life. UNODC also supports prevention activities to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS among injecting drug abusers, and through them, to their spouses, children and the general population.
Drugs of Abuse - the Facts
What is drug abuse?
People have taken psychoactive drugs for curative, religious and recreational purposes for hundreds of years. At the end of the last century, however, due to advances in the field of chemistry and pharmacology, stronger and highly addictive substances such as cocaine and heroin were synthesized. In addition, the invention of hypodermic syringes enabled people to inject these drugs, making their effects more powerful and the risk of addiction more serious. Against this background and the risk of widespread abuse, the first international controls were instituted following the Opium Commission in Shanghai in 1909.

Over the years, various United Nations Conventions have restricted the sale and use of different substances to medical purposes. These conventions were amalgamated in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This in turn was supplemented in 1972 by a Protocol stressing the need for treatment and rehabilitation services. In 1971 the Convention on Psychotropic Substances established an international control system for a list of pharmaceutical drugs and other substances that affect the mind. For the purposes of international drug control, the term "drug abuse" refers to the illicit, i.e. non-medical, use of any of the substances listed in the above conventions. A 1988 Convention addressed drug trafficking and included provisions against money laundering and the diversion of chemicals used in the manufacture of illicit drugs ("precursor chemicals").

Substances of abuse

A psychoactive substance is any substance that people take to change either the way they feel, think, or behave. This includes alcohol and tobacco as well as natural and manufactured drugs. In the past, most drugs were made from plants, such as the coca bush for cocaine, opium poppies for heroin and cannabis for hashish or marijuana. Now drugs such as Ecstasy or LSD are produced by synthesizing various chemicals. Drugs of abuse fall into three categories: depressants (e.g. heroin, barbiturates), stimulants (e.g. cocaine, crack, amphetamines) and hallucinogens (e.g. marijuana, Ecstasy, LSD), and are either ingested, inhaled, smoked, injected or snorted.

Depressants are sedatives that act on the nervous system. They provide artificial relaxation and relief from anxiety and mental stress but tend to produce psychological dependence; withdrawal from heavy use is severe.

Stimulants are agents that activate, enhance, or increase activity of the central nervous system. They include amphetamines and synthetic appetite suppressants such as phenmetrazine or methylphenidate. Stimulants can give rise to symptoms suggestive of intoxication, including tachycardia, pupillary dilation, elevated blood pressure and nausea or vomiting. They can also cause violent and aggressive behaviour, agitation and impaired judgement. A full-blown delusional psychosis may occur.

Hallucinogens are chemically diverse and produce profound mental changes such as euphoria, anxiety, sensory distortion, vivid hallucinations, delusion, paranoia and depression. They include mescaline and LSD.


Drugs can be harmful in a number of ways, both through immediate effects and through damage to health over time. Even occasional use of marijuana affects cognitive development and short-term memory. In addition, the effects of marijuana on perception, reaction and coordination of movements can result in accidents.
Hallucinogens (such as LSD) distort perceptions, alter heart-rate and blood pressure and, in the long term, cause neurological disorders, depressions, anxiety, visual hallucinations and flashbacks.
Cocaine and amphetamines cause tremors, headaches, hypertension and increased heart-rate. Long-term effects include nausea, insomnia, loss of weight, convulsions and depression.
Heroin use initially results in nausea, slow respiration, dry skin, itching, slow speech and reflexes. Over a long period of time there is a serious risk of developing physical and psychological dependence, which can result in acute overdose and even death due to respiratory depression.
There is a tendency to present some drugs (such as cannabis and Ecstasy) as less harmful than they actually are, without taking into consideration their long-term consequences and the effects they have on adolescent development, particularly on the development of certain critical functions (cognitive ability and capacity to memorize). Ecstasy has been presented as having little or no side effects, but studies show that its use alters, perhaps permanently, certain brain functions and also damages the liver and other body organs.

Although not regarded as illicit, inhalants are widely abused, especially by disadvantaged youth. Some of these volatile substances, which are present in many products such as glue, paint, gasoline and cleaning fluids, are directly toxic to the liver, kidney or heart, and some produce progressive brain degeneration.
The major problem with psychoactive drugs is that when people take them, they focus on the desired mental and emotional effects and ignore the potentially damaging physical and mental side effects that can occur. No illicit drug can be considered "safe". In one way or another, the use of psychoactive substances alters the normal functioning of the human body, and in the long run they can cause serious damage.

For more information on selected drugs of abuse, pharmacological effects and possible medical use, see terminology and information on drugs and consult the demand reduction glossary of terms(PDF).
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