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Behind the headlines on UNODC’s World Drug Report

United Nations World Drug Report 2012

The UN’s Annual World Drug Report published this week led to the inevitable lurid headlines about Australian’s soaring drug use. “Aussies the biggest recreational drug users in the world” screamed News Limited. Other news outlets focussed more specifically on Australia and New Zealand’s high cannabis use.

Fortunately NDARC’s senior epidemiologist Professor Louisa Degenhardt  took the opportunity to provided a more nuanced perspective in interviews with the ABC’s Richard Glover and with Radio 2GB.

As Louisa explained to Glover the report, prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), is based on what is reported to them by governments across the globe. Many governments have no measurements or very poor measurements in place. By contrast Australia has very accurate reporting systems which are more about providing an evidence base to direct policy and clinical provision, rather than “political saleability”. In reality we aren’t the highest consumers in the world. The region that we are from, Oceania, has a higher regional average, affected by countries with especially high levels.

On a country by country basis Australia has levels of cannabis use (10 per cent) that are lower than other countries including Canada (13%) and United States (14 per cent).

Of more concern in the report, and something that was picked up by the UK media and not the Australian media, is that the bulk of the predicted 25 per cent growth in illicit drug users by 2050 is likely to take place in the growing urban populations of developing countries. Females are likely to account for much of this increase as social and economic gender inequalities in these countries break down.

The report also predicts that the biggest increases in the future in illicit drug use will be seen in synthetic drugs and non-medical use of prescription drugs, particularly in the US and Australia.

So while no one doubts that Australia has huge challenges ahead in tackling problems arising from alcohol and other drug misuse - currently conservatively estimated to cost us at least $66 billion a year - some of the media headlines this week certainly painted a misleading picture.

UNODC World drug Report 2012. http://www.unodc.org/