Press Releases

    16 December 2004

    Drug Alert from the United Nations: Increased Supply of Afghan Heroin Promises Overdoses and Death

    VIENNA, 16 December (UN Information Service) -- An abundant supply of heroin from Afghanistan, and the drug’s price stability in consumer countries suggest a likely increase in the purity of heroin in coming months, and a commensurate increase in the number of deaths attributed to heroin overdose.

    The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is alerting health officials around the world to the looming risk, and advising broad and immediate prevention efforts. Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of UNODC, is also sending detailed warnings to Ministers of Health and drug treatment organizations across Europe and Central Asia, regions expected to be hit hard and fast by the purer form of heroin.

    Statistics correlating changes in cultivation in Afghanistan to drug-related deaths in Western Europe tell a dramatic story: in 2001, when opium cultivation was banned in Afghanistan, production declined by 94 per cent. One year later, when the heroin reached Western European markets, low supplies of the drug also meant falling purity levels. In some European countries, heroin purity fell by as much as 50 per cent. Drug-related deaths fell by about 20 per cent in Western Europe over the 2000-2002 period, a result of lower consumption and lower levels of purity.

    According to Mr. Costa, “This year, opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by 64 per cent compared to 2003. The illicit heroin yield in Afghanistan in 2004 weighed in at more than 500 tons. Compare this to the worldwide demand for heroin, which is cruising at between 300 – 400 tons.”

    Mr. Costa added, “Given that this increase followed two previous years of high production, we know the worldwide supply will exceed demand for illicit heroin in 2005, and that an abundant supply of heroin is likely to result in rising levels of purity and substantial increases in the number of drug-related deaths. This is already happening in northern Russia.”

    More than 10,000 drug users die annually from overdoses involving Afghan heroin.  Drug-related deaths linked to the abuse of Afghan heroin are estimated at approximately 100,000 per year. In 2002, it is estimated that approximately 7,000 deaths from drug-overdose occurred in Western Europe – down from 9,000 in 2000 when Afghan heroin was still in great supply. Clearly, Western Europe and neighbouring regions can expect an upsurge of similar magnitude in 2005, when supply is once more expected to surge, and levels of purity to rise.   

    While statistics on drug-related deaths in Russia and Central Asia are scarce, according to the UN, Russia has as many as 700,000 injecting drug users; Ukraine, more than 400,000; Pakistan, more than 180,000, and in India, the number of injecting drug users is estimated at more than 500,000.

    “Demographics such as these translate into massive groups of individuals susceptible to heroin overdose,” said Mr. Costa. “And I am calling on Ministers of Health and prevention organizations around the world to respond to this challenge in tangible and immediate ways.”

    Mr. Costa continued, “Stable prices at a time of over-supply could mean a sudden increase in the purity of heroin sold on the street.  People have to be aware that there will be an inevitable rise in overdoses and related deaths -- something we’re already seeing in the northern region of Russia.” History supports this forecast: in the past, increases in the illicit supply of heroin have resulted, not in price reductions, but in a higher level of purity per dose.

     “In Afghanistan, drugs are now a clear and present danger,” said the UNODC Executive Director. “For drug users, a greater supply of heroin may be a death sentence."

    For more information, contact:
    Kathleen Millar
    Deputy Spokesperson, UNODC
    Phone: +43 1 26060 5629

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