The UN will warn today that major drug traffickers are operating with virtual impunity because governments across the world are failing to target cartels.
Instead, they are concentrating on small-time users, a strategy the UN says has led to the "rampant flow" of drugs into fresh markets through new international trade routes .
According to the 127-page annual report from the UN's International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), governments need to make greater efforts to freeze traffickers' assets, improve access to drug treatment programmes and expand the range of non-custodial sentences available for convicted users.
The main findings were:
The emergence of new smuggling routes, in particular cocaine from South America being stockpiled and repackaged in west Africa before entering Europe.
Increased cultivation of coca bushes -- from which cocaine is derived -- in Peru and Bolivia as crop eradication programmes reduce production in Colombia.
A 17% increase in illicit opium poppy cultivation during 2007 in Afghanistan. The country now accounts for 93% of the global market in opiates.
Britain appears to have the worst crack cocaine problem in Europe.
The INCB report also highlighted the role of people in the public eye who used drugs. "Celebrity 'endorsement' of drug-related lifestyles is particularly relevant when it comes to the issue of deterring drug use among youth, who are often most vulnerable to the cult of celebrity," said the report. "Young people are quick to pick up on and react to perceived leniency in dealing with such offenders."
It added: "Some countries still spend disproportionate effort in targeting low-level offenders and drug users, as compared to the more pressing issues of identifying, dismantling and punishing those who control or organise major drug trafficking activities.
"Many states impose unconditional imprisonment of drug abusers for lesser offences, such as possession or purchase of drugs for personal use and these typically make up a significant proportion of growing prison populations in some countries. There is no universal 'moral instinct' when it comes to punishment for less serious cases."
Launching the report in London, Professor Hamid Ghodse of the INCB said it was a major concern that the main traffickers were escaping capture. "Organised traffickers have lots of power and do not get their hands dirty, so they get away with impunity," he said.
The rapid development of smuggling routes through west Africa is worrying law enforcement agencies. Interpol estimates that 200-300 tonnes of cocaine from Latin America pass through countries such as Benin, Cape Verde, Mauritania and Senegal every year, from where it is smuggled into Spain, Portugal and the UK. Cocaine seizures in Portugal, already at a high level, have almost doubled.
Ships, yachts and private planes are used to evade detection. "Cocaine traffickers frequently change the airports from which they depart and their routes," the report observes.
Around 40% of cocaine reaching Europe is shipped through longer-established routes via the Caribbean. In 2006, Colombia accounted for 50% of the world's coca cultivation, Peru 33% and Bolivia 17%.
The illicit cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan has continued to increase "at an alarming level," says the report. The total area used for illicit opium cultivation increased by 59% in 2006 and by a further 17% last year.
Afghan opiates are smuggled to Iran, Pakistan and countries in central Asia en route to Europe. Iran now has the world's highest abuse of opiates, according to the report. Under article 14 of the convention, the INCB can recommend an embargo against a country if its government fails to take remedial action or cooperate. Such action was taken against Afghanistan in 2000 when the Taliban were still in power and on "half a dozen" unpublicised occasions, and the countries concerned have responded positively, said Ghodse.
"We learn a lesson from Afghanistan," he said. "Where there is political upheaval, drug issues should be on the agenda from day one." An estimated 3.3 million people now use heroin in Europe, according to the report. Almost all the heroin in Europe comes from Afghanistan.
Cannabis remains the main drug of choice in Europe, according to the report, with western Europe the main market for cannabis resin. The UK reported a decrease in cannabis use.
Of crack, the report says: "The abuse of 'crack' cocaine continues to be marginal in all countries in western Europe, with the possible exception of the UK."
The INCB remains critical of projects that appear to condone drug use of any kind, including medical marijuana. It called on Canada to end the supply of "safer crack kits", claiming such provision for addicts is in contravention of article 13 of the UN convention against illicit drug traffic. In the report's foreword, Dr Philip Emafo, president of the INCB, said suggestions that legalising drugs might be a solution were "simplistic and misplaced".
The drugs reform organisation Transform disputed the main findings. Its director, Danny Kushlick, said that with drugs now a UKP320bn business, arresting any drug lords would create a vacuum that would be immediately filled by others.
"People don't take drugs because Amy Winehouse takes drugs," added Kushlick. "It entirely misses the point. They take drugs because they make them feel better or they stop them feeling bad." He said the only solution was a regulated market.
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