This report was drafted by David Bewley-Taylor and Ediomo-Ubong Nelson (Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University)

The 2021 World Drug Report provides a comprehensive analysis of trends in global drug markets, including production, trafficking, consumption and health consequences within the context of COVID-19, and highlights current and future impacts of the pandemic on drug market dynamics. An interesting component of the 2021 Report is the projected increase in the population of people who use drugs by 2030, in particular as it relates to the African continent. As shown in the Report and the Methodological Annex, the projection is based on limited and uncertain data. In this critique, we analyse the limitations of the data and methodologies, and explore the implications of the estimate for drug policy in Africa.

It is to the credit of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC or Office) that the limitations of the data used in the estimate is acknowledged and readers are cautioned to view the figures as a projection rather than an accurate forecast. Nevertheless, the true nature of the figure remains obscured by its eye-catching and media friendly representation in the Report. Further, the figure could take on a life of its own and, following media representations, could be regarded as absolute, instead of a complex estimate.

In terms of the type of data collected, while there has been a welcome increase in attention given to the health consequences of drug use in recent years, a strong case can be made that there remains a preoccupation with scale and flows rather than a more nuanced focus on harm, including those that are generated by drug policies. Such a consideration is particularly relevant when, and in view of this year’s focus on projected figures for African drug use, drug policy is considered within the context of achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and UN human rights norms more generally.

Importantly, while drug use estimates in Africa are useful for awareness raising and decisionmaking, the figures can be unhelpful in optimising drug policy since they do not distinguish between types of substances used and between problematic and non-problematic drug use. Given the tendency to conflate drug use in Africa (and elsewhere) with harms, while ignoring its social and health benefits especially for marginalised youth on the continent, estimates that fails to adequately capture the nuances and complexity of drug use could easily be used to bolster support for failed drug policies.

Previous reports in this series: