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Millions hooked on illicit drugs, as nations debate policy to tackle the problem

Millions hooked on illicit drugs, as nations debate policy to tackle the problem

As leaders from around the world gather in New York for what many are calling the most important summit on illegal drugs in two decades, one thing is clear: The world has a serious drug problem.

Worldwide, about 246 million people use illicit drugs, and 1 in 10 of these users suffer from disorders related to drug use. Of the estimated 12 million people who inject drugs, at least 1.6 million are also living with HIV, while slightly more than half suffer from hepatitis C. Each year, 200,000 people suffer drug-related deaths, such as overdoses.

And, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the U.S. is leading the way, followed by Australia, Canada, Spain, Israel and Uruguay. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reports that 10% of Americans 12 and older said they had used an illicit drug in the last month.

Americans are also the greatest consumers when it comes to prescription opioids and marijuana, which remains the most widely used drug in the world, according to the U.N. drug agency.

Around the world, there were an estimated 182 million cannabis users in 2013, more than all other drug users combined.

Around 8.5% of Americans over age 12 reported using marijuana as recently as 2014, according to National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse data. There has been a slight increase in marijuana usage, largely because of the increased acceptability of the drug, its legality in some states, and the perception that it causes a lower level of harm than other drugs, according to Linda Richter, the organization's director of policy research and analysis.

While pot remains the most widely used drug, it still falls behind opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and the drug Ecstasy in terms of substances that present the highest risk of harm, according to the agency. Afghanistan saw rampant use of opiates in 2009, the latest year for which such data are available. Use of amphetamines was most prevalent in the Philippines in 2008, while cocaine was most widely used in Spain in 2011, and Ecstasy dominated in New Zealand in 2007.

Yury Fedotov, the U.N. drug agency's executive director, said his agency has noticed certain trends in terms of the global use of illegal drugs. For example, while cocaine use is decreasing or stabilizing in Europe and North America, it has increased in some parts of South America, and in West and East Africa, as criminals seek to expand their markets into areas that were previously seen only as transit routes, Fedotov said in written comments to The Times. Heroin is also being seized in these regions, and methamphetamine labs have been found in West African countries, he added.

Meanwhile, the use of amphetamine-type stimulants, especially methamphetamine, is increasing in East and Southeast Asia and there has been an increase in the use of opiates in some countries where it was declining or had previously stabilized, such as the U.S., where there has been an increase in the supply of inexpensive heroin and a rise in heroin-related deaths, Fedotov said.

There has also been an upswing in the usage of the painkiller fentanyl, which U.S. drug agency officials say dealers use to spike heroin for greater potency at a cheaper cost or as a counterfeit for drugs such as Norco.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration an estimated 700 people died as a result of fentanyl and its analogs nationwide between late 2013 and late 2014, the latest years for which data are available.

In India, the use of opium — which is used to produce heroin — has become rampant in the northern state of Punjab, largely because of trafficking along the border with Pakistan, according to local healthcare specialists. But cannabis has also become popular, especially in urban areas, said Anand Nadkarni, director of the Institute for Psychological Health in Maharashtra and founder of a rehabilitation center in the western city of Pune.

Nadkarni said the increase in cannabis use was partly due to "a myth perpetuated by those in the trade that cannabis is a soft drug and is legal in the U.S."

Hamid, 34, a resident of Mumbai, India, said he is recovering from a drug addiction that began when he used hashish.

"Hashish was a gateway to this world and shortly I experimented with various other drugs," said Hamid, who did not want to use his last name because of the sensitive nature of his circumstances. "My college education fell apart and my family became estranged."

He said he started stealing to support his habit and landed in jail for three years before accepting the opportunity to turn his life around.

Father Joe Pereira, who heads the anti-addiction Kripa Foundation in Mumbai, said that in his 35 years of working with drug addicts he has noticed the average age of the consumers dropping from between 45 and 55 years in the early 1980s to between the ages of 14 and 24 today.

"Today the youngsters get jobs and start earning fairly early in life," Pereira said. "Workplaces like call centers, especially where youngsters work, have been penetrated by drug consumption."

Times staff writer Joseph Serna in Los Angeles and special correspondent Parth M.N. in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.

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