UN sounds alarm on widespread designer drug use

VIENNA (AP) - The United Nation's drug control agency on Wednesday sounded the alarm on the spread of designer drugs, which are sold openly and legally and sometimes result in deadly highs, while reporting that global drug use generally remains stable.

Such substances "can be far more dangerous than traditional drugs", the agency said in a statement accompanying its annual report. "Street names, such as 'spice,' 'meow-meow' and 'bath salts' mislead young people into believing that they are indulging in low-risk fun."

A six-page summary of the report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warned that "the international drug control system is foundering, for the first time, under the speed and creativity" of their proliferation. It said countries worldwide reported 251 such substances by mid-2012, compared with 166 at the end of 2009. The problem, said the report, is "hydra-headed" in that as fast as governments ban the drugs, manufacturers produce new variants.

Nearly 5 per cent of European Union residents aged between 15 and 24 have already experimented with such drugs, said the report. In the United States, 158 kinds of synthetic drugs were circulating last year, more than twice as many as in the EU, and use was growing in East and South-east Asia, including China, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Mr Gil Kerlikowske, director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (UNODC), said the US faces "continuing challenges with prescription drug abuse and new synthetic drugs". But he also noted successes, telling participants meeting in Vienna for the report's launch that US cocaine use has decreased by 50 per cent since 2006.

In a statement accompanying the organisation's 151-page report, UNODC head Yury Fedotov said while drug use and production overall appears to be stable in recent years, illicit drug consumption still kills around 200,000 people each year. However, the office lowered its estimate of the number of people injecting drugs and those living with the HIV virus worldwide because of such injections. It said 14 million people between the ages of 16 and 65 inject drugs and, of those, 1.6 million have the virus as a result of such injections - 12 per cent and 46 per cent less, respectively, than last estimated five years ago.

In other findings, the agency reported:

- heroin and opium use remains steady at around 16.4 million people, or 0.4 per cent of the world's adult population.

- heroin use appears to be declining in Europe, with users aging and because of more efficient drug seizures.

- cocaine use, although still rare, appears to be growing in China and Hong Kong as shown by seizures of the drug, apparently reflecting the growth of a more affluent society.