Production of heroin, cocaine and cannabis decreased or stabilised in 2008, but synthetic drugs like ecstasy went up, the UN's drug agency said in its annual report published Wednesday.
"Global markets for cocaine, opiates and cannabis are steady or in decline, while production and use of synthetic drugs is feared to be increasing in the developing world," the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in its 2008 World Drug Report.
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, where 93 percent of the world's opium is grown, was down by 19 percent last year, while coca leaf cultivation in Colombia, the world's largest cultivator, fell by 18 percent, the report said.
This led to a global drop in production of 16 percent for opiates and eight percent for cocaine, it added.
However, while these trends were "encouraging", the UNODC pointed out that amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) -- which include amphetamines, methamphetamines and ecstasy -- were on the rise.
Seizures of the drugs increased in 2008 and a growing number of countries was producing them.
"What was once a cottage industry has become big business," the report noted, citing industrial-sized laboratories in southeast Asia, especially in the Greater Mekong region.
Since ATS and cannabis could be produced anywhere in the world, the report admitted it was more difficult to track production, unlike with heroin and cocaine where opium poppy and coca leaf fields were easy to detect.
But it noted that cannabis had become more dangerous, with the average content in marijuana of the harmful component THC almost doubling in the last 10 years.
The UN office relies on member states to provide information about drug use and production in their country.
In the developed world, the UNODC reported lower or steady consumption of opiates, cocaine and cannabis last year.
Use of cocaine -- which has a global market estimated at 50 billion dollars (35.5 billion euros) -- especially declined in the United States, the world's largest cocaine market, while in western European countries it began to stabilise for the first time after years of increases.
Cannabis, the most widely used drug in the world, meanwhile saw a drop in consumption in developed countries, especially among young people, while opiates seemed to remain steady in most of western Europe, the UNODC said.
Use of synthetic drugs, while appearing to level off in developed countries, had risen sharply in the Middle East, it noted, citing some European Union countries and Canada as major suppliers and traffickers of ecstasy.
"International efforts are paying off," UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa said upon presenting the report, noting a drop in cocaine seizures in West Africa after years of growth.
But drug-related violence continued in central America and Africa, he said, calling on member states to clamp down on drugs to help users at home and developing countries abroad.
"As long as demand for drugs persists, weak countries will always be targeted by traffickers," he said.
"If Europe really wants to help Africa, it should curb its appetite for cocaine."
Drug controls have created "an illicit black market of macro-economic proportions that uses violence and corruption," Costa admitted.
But legalising them was not a solution, he said, calling instead for a new approach to drug control, emphasising medical help rather than prison sentences for users and providing opportunities to underprivileged youths in urban ghettos, while continuing to fight organised crime.
"Illicit drugs pose a danger to health. That's why drugs are, and must remain, controlled," noted Costa.
In some countries, five times as many people were jailed for using drugs than for trafficking.
"This is a waste of money for the police, and a waste of lives for those thrown in jail," noted Costa.
"Go after the piranhas, not the minnows," he added.
Wed June 24, 2009