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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 4th July 2012

Most people whose only contact with illegal psychoactive substances is reading about them in the press will tell you that drugs damage your brain. After several days trying to make sense of the numbers reported in the UNODC World Drugs Report (WDR) 2012, I can say that the completely befuddled state of my brain suggests most people are right.

When I wrote about World Drugs Day 26th june I said that, at first glance, the conclusions drawn about the opiate market looked odd but that I needed to do some more number-crunching before saying too much. Well, I’ve tried to work through the numbers but I’m not at all sure I’m in a better position I than I was from the first quick look I did last Thursday.

What I wanted to do was test the statement that farm-gate prices for opium in Afghanistan rose in 2010 because of a shortage of heroin in the market against previous statements that Afghanistan was producing far more opium that required by the world’s heroin users.

It should be a simple problem. Take the amount of opium produced, convert that to an equivalent for heroin, deduct the amount seized by law enforcement agencies of all types, deduct the amount consumed by heroin users and what is left is the increase (or decrease) in global stocks.

The first problem that has to be very clearly stated is that all of the numbers reported by UNODC are estimates. It is very easy to forget that when you start to work with them. You end up by taking a very rough estimate and treating it as the gospel truth.

I was very fortunate, when still an undergraduate, to attend a scientific conference where some American researchers presented their results to three decimal places and were made to look foolish when someone pointed out that the measuring instrument they used was only capable of providing accuracy to one decimal place.

UNODC has made some progress in terms of recognising that it is only reporting estimates. For example, the 2006 WDR stated that 200 million people (aged 15-64) had used illegal drugs in the previous year. For the 2012 WDR, last year prevalence is given as 153 million to 300 million. That range gives a better appreciation of the difficulty of assessing an illicit industry but it also makes it difficult to make detailed assessments of the size of that industry.

All of which is a long preamble to getting stuck into assessing the situation for opium and, probably, demonstrates my concern that I’m about to tie myself in knots but it can’t be put off any longer.

Start with production. Table 8 of the WDR 2012 gives figures for opium production and the resulting heroin manufactured. Whilst all the figures are qualified as ‘potential’ they are reported to the nearest 1 tonne rather over-stating the reliability of the data.

The figures show the increase from the 2004 level of 4,850 tonnes to 2008’s peak of 8,641 tonnes before the sharp fall to 4,736 tonnes in 2010 and a recovery to 6,995 tonnes in 2011. Estimates, remember, but numbers to work with.

Now comes the first complication. Because the next item in the table is for opium not processed into heroin. The note explains that this number applies to Afghanistan only and is estimated based on seizures for 2011 whereas it had previously been provided by informants so, on top of the inherent unreliability, is a lack of comparability between 2011 and previous years. I found no further analysis of this item so it is unclear whether this opium is retained for domestic consumption or held in stock. Afghanistan is known to have a large opium using population but the presence of stock-piling seems to be confirmed by the reported drop from 2,898 tonnes retained in 2009 to 1,728 tonnes when production fell. It is hard to believe that domestic consumption could fall by a third without creating noticeable problems.

There is another way to look at that figure. The 2011 Afghanistan Opium Survey estimated 2.65% of the adult population of Afghanistan uses opium and its derivatives. That is a much higher rate than the world average, less than 1%, but, given Afghanistan’s 30 millionish population it amounts to something approaching half a million adults of the ‘best estimate’ of 48 million opioid/opiate users worldwide.

Just to add to the fun, UNODC reports on opioids and opiates separately. In the Executive Summary it says ‘opiates (opium and heroin)’ and then, in the next paragraph says ‘opioids (mainly heroin, morphine and non-medical use of prescription opioids)’ so I really don’t understand the difference between the two, as perceived by UNODC. In the previous paragraph, I’ve combined opioids and opiates to get the 48 million figure.

Taking the 2009 figures, 7,853 tonnes of opium were produced and 2,898 tonnes stayed as opium in Afghanistan. Clearly, 1% of the world’s opiate users cannot be consuming 37% of the world’s opium so most of that retained opium must be stockpiled.

UNODC then converts the remaining opium into heroin. From these figures you need to deduct seizures. It easiest to say that, since 2003, global seizures have amounted to 100 tonnes each year. (The range from 91 to 104 is immaterial given that the figure for heroin seized is derived from an estimate of purity because the actual tonnages seized are higher.)

So, now we have a figure for the heroin available to the world market but what UNODC does not do is actually estimate consumption. I’ve assumed that the 2004 and 2005 tonnages (429 and 372 respectively) were enough to meet demand. The UNODC has, for a number of years, described the demand for opium derived substances as ‘stable’.

To try and over-estimate consumption, I took a figure of 450 tonnes per year for 2006 forward. Taking the available, unseized heroin figures derived from Table 8 I got;

Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Available 529 657 652 567 284 367
Surplus/Deficit 79 207 202 117 -166 -83
Cumulative stock 79 286 488 605 439 356

What that shows is that, ignoring the opium held in Afghanistan that could be released to boost the availability of heroin, there should have been enough heroin in the world to avoid the claimed shortages, the reported increase in farm-gate prices in Afghanistan and the stated diversion to things like ‘krokodil’ in Russia.

I realise that I could have said 1,000 words ago that the WDR is not a source of reliable information about the world’s production and use of substances named in the 1961 Single Convention. But I thought I should take the time to show just why that is true.

Or, of course, I might have simply looked at one of the subsidiary documents published online to support the WDR. This is a 159 page document named ‘Seizures 2006-2010’. From this I learned that in 2009, the authorities in Viet Nam made a seizure of 6.29Kg of an illegal drug in the Amphetamine Type Substance (ATS) ‘Drug Group’. The actual drug is, however, reported as ‘Non-specified ATS’. So, we know the weight of the seizure to the nearest 10gm but we have no idea what the substance actually was.

It is often said that the biggest supporters of the war on drugs are the criminals involved in the supply of those drugs. To that group, I’d like to add the many officials employed by individual governments and the UN whose job is to collect highly detailed information about the drug trade that has absolutely no value.

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