Global Drug Dependence

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An analysis of data gathered for the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study appears in Lancet this month. The analysis focuses on the health burden generated by addiction.

(The full article can be accessed for free after registration with Lancet.)

Opiates causing most damage worldwide

Four abused substances were examined: cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines and opiates. The findings are broken down by substance abused, region and other metrics. Opiates came out on top as causing the most damage worldwide, and males were the greatest users of all illicit substances, with from 64 to 70 percent of all drugs consumed by men. Males also had the highest age-related usage pattern, with men in their twenties having the highest level of drug dependence.

As an economic burden, those countries with larger economies and higher standards of living were affected the most – the US, the UK and Australia. This is primarily because of higher costs associated with lost work and treatment, as well as higher prices for illegal substances. The “spread” was across a 20-fold difference in financial burden between the lowest and highest ranked countries.

Marijuana much less of a burden

Interestingly, although marijuana is used by the most people worldwide, it generates less of a burden because of dependence than other, more addictive drugs. The two numbers tend to balance out – many more users of marijuana, but fewer (as a percentage) becoming dependent. The net result was a worldwide estimate of 13 million marijuana “addicts” as compared to 17.2 million for amphetamines and 15.5 million for opiates.

While smoking and alcohol remain much more harmful statistically than illicit substances, the prevalence of opioid abuse is linked to higher risk for more immediate consequences than legal substances. Most of the health damage done by alcohol and tobacco occurs later in life, while opiate abuse, particularly injectable forms, spreads diseases like HIV and hepatitis. So, while statistically, legal substances are more dangerous overall, for individuals, illicit drug use is riskier.

Studies such as this one are used to influence policy at an international level and are helpful to both the UN and NGO’s dealing with substance abuse.

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