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Global Substance Use Breakdown (Hint: Americans Love Painkillers)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s easy to zoom in on drug and alcohol use to America, nestling with home-grown problems, but where do we stand with the rest of the world? Are we, the culture of excess and over-consumption, “normal?”


The world drank the equivalent of 1.6 gallons of alcohol per person in 2005, according to the World Health Organization, averaging 2-2.65 gallons per person, per year, in the U.S. and Canada. The heaviest drinkers? Russia and European countries down 3.3 gallons per person and up. Take a look at this Economist map to see a visual breakdown.


Though we may not be on the heavy-handed alcohol spectrum, Americans take 80 percent of the world’s opioid painkillers (and 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone), though we comprise only 4.6% of the globe’s population.


According to a 2010 World Drug Report, the world’s opiate and cocaine supply continues to decline. Cocaine use is down in America but up in Europe: from 2 million users in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2008. Global cocaine production declined by 12-18 percent between 2007 and 2009 and is down 28 percent this decade.


Heroin manufacturing fell by 13 percent in 2009, in large part due to lower production and an opium poppy blight in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Overall, we’re cultivating less opium worldwide.

The Growing Trend?

Worldwide, painkiller and methamphetamine-like stimulant use is escalating. These stimulants are particularly problematic for monitoring drug trafficking, as they’re commonly manufactured close to distribution points. From a drug control vantage point, it’s more worrisome to have widespread homemade labs than pinpoint-able large-scale crops.

As the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes,

“We will not solve the world drugs problem if we simply push addiction from cocaine and heroin to other addictive substances – and there are unlimited amounts of them, produced in mafia labs at trivial costs.”

But how do we exact a block on homemade labs? We’re at the dawn of a new global drug enforcement problem — the guerrilla warfare of substances, not only with illegal stimulant creations, but with widespread, pervasive prescribed painkillers.

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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