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Drug Use in the Americas: OAS

DRUG POLICY / 10 MAY 2012 BY MOLLIE LAFFIN-ROSE EN

The Organization of American States' (OAS) first report on drug consumption in the Americas offers a sweeping look at recent trends in illegal substance use throughout the hemisphere.

Compiling information from 34 countries, the report examines alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, cocaine, and prescription drug use and finds that usage across substances is concentrated among young adults, ages 18 to 25.

The report, released in March, finds that marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the Americas, where 25 percent of worldwide marijuana consumption takes place. Three-quarters of this consumption occurs in North America, although the report attributes this in part to larger populations in the U.S. and Canada.

The prevalence of marijuana use varies from country to country. In the Caribbean, which has some of the highest rates, consumption of marijuana is so high that it exceeds tobacco use in some populations, particularly among secondary school students. To contrast, marijuana use in Mexico, which increased from five percent in 1997 to eight percent in 2006, dropped dramatically to about four percent by 2009.

Marijuana is gaining increased attention in substance abuse programs, as countries such as Argentina, Panama, and Peru report that at least 20 percent of treatment seekers cite it as their primary substance of abuse.

In contrast to the prevalence of marijuana use across the hemisphere, cocaine use is generally declining in North America but is on the rise in South America, according to the report's findings.  Smokeable variants from cocaine base paste (CBP) like crack is growing increasingly popular in the Southern Cone, and is today one of the few illegal substances whose prevalence in South America exceeds that in North America. Still, the scale of cocaine use remains tipped toward the northern continent: 70 percent of cocaine users are found in the U.S. and Canada, while 27 percent are found in South American countries.

The report also challenges the assumption that cocaine is produced in the Americas largely for export. Approximately half of worldwide cocaine use takes place within the hemisphere, the report says. 

This is the OAS's first survey of a rampant and not easily measurable problem throughout the hemisphere. Covering drug use over a period of almost ten years, the survey serves as a useful initial collection of statistics but is limited in its analysis. One of the problems with measuring drug use is because country-by-country surveys are only realized sporadically, it is difficult to accurately trace whether usage is going up or down. But with the 2011 report as a starting point, follow-up surveys should make it easier to trace drug consumption trends on a regionwide basis by providing more points of comparison.

Read the full OAS report here (pdf).

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