STATS ARTICLES 2006

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The United Nations Drug Report Are They High?

June 30, 3006
Maia Szalavitz
The global drug problem has been contained (thanks to a combination of execution and breeding)

Perhaps I was genetically destined to work for STATS. My grandfather, Aaron Levenstein, is the author of a widely cited quote about how statistics can be used in a misleading fashion: “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

This came to mind when I read this year’s U.N. World Drug Report, and specifically the following passage:

"In the long-term, the drug problem has been contained… there is evidence that, over the last hundred years, [international drug control policy] has reduced and contained the drug problem at the global level.

Tracking a long-term trend over a century is difficult because the evidence is in short supply.

Some baselines can, however, be found. The best, in terms of detail, is for opium, because it was the opium problem which was investigated at the Shanghai Commission in 1909. Comparing the size of the opium problem in one country China at the beginning of the 20th century with the size of the opium problem in the world at large today, gives one some idea of how the problem has evolved over a century…

Just before the convening of the Shanghai Opium Commission, in 1907/1908, world opium production was estimated to have been at least 30,000 metric tons. Almost three quarters of this was produced in China, one-sixth in India and the rest in Indochina, Persia and Turkey. Nearly a hundred years later, world opium production declined by more than 80% to around 5,000 tons in 2005, including 4,620 tons of illegal opium and some 400 tons of licit medical opium. Over the same period, the population of the world grew three fold, from less than 2 billion to over 6 billion. Opium production is thus eighty per cent smaller in a world which is three times larger."

Wow! Looks like efforts to cut drug supply have been a smashing achievement the war on opium, the source of heroin, the hardest of drugs, has essentially been won and we didn’t even realize it!

Of course, what this leaves out is that China achieved most of this “success” for the international community by executing thousands of addicts and dealers something even the most extreme American drug warriors might balk at.

What it also fails to mention is that since 1980, world opium production has more than sextupled (see page 24 and, yes, the statistics needed to debunk this year’s report are found in the same agency’s 2000 report).

Moreover, since the production statistic includes both medical and illicit production, it is even more misleading. Health advances since the early 1900’s have meant that more conditions that previously caused severe pain can now be treated and cured, requiring less palliative care with painkillers, at least in the West. Further, synthetic opioids have been introduced so measuring natural opium production may miss some part of both licit and illicit supply.

Finally, reducing opioid availability in medicine is not without harmful effects. Eighty percent of people live in developing countries, which now consume just six percent of medical opioids. Our “success” at limiting access to these vital drugs by legitimate patients has meant that in places where advanced medical care still isn’t widely available, neither is the most basic palliative care. And even here in the U.S., pain patients often have trouble getting the medicine they need.

Of course, the data could be seen as accurate if one wants to take the line that opioid addiction wasn’t ever much of a problem: even now, the country reporting the largest percent of its population affected (ironically, Iran, which executes people for drug offenses), reports that only 2.8 percent of its population has opioid addiction. In the U.S., the figure is 0.6 percent. However, the rest of the document (with includes section titled, Cannabis: Why We Should Care) suggests that portraying drugs as an issue of little concern is not its agenda.

At least those who write texts on how to lie with statistics won’t have to do much googling to find this useful example. Or, perhaps, with this “data” to guide us, we can declare victory and move on?