U.N. report: Party drugs bigger problems than heroin, cocaine

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com September 26 2003 11:00 PM ET

Party drugs like ecstasy and amphetamines have overtaken heroin and cocaine as the fastest-growing global narcotics menace, partly because of AIDS education efforts exposing the dangers of injectable drugs, the United Nations said on Tuesday. In a report unveiled in Italy, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that more than 40 million people around the world had taken synthetic drugs in the last year, more than the combined number of cocaine and heroin users. "These are terrifying narcotics because they are subtle--they kill the brain rather than the heart," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the Vienna-based U.N. office. Ecstasy and methamphetamines are popular party drugs among gay men.

Ecstasy abuse spiraled by 70% and amphetamines, such as speed, by 40% between 1995 and 2001. By contrast, cocaine and heroin abuse worldwide grew less than 1% each. The Netherlands is the largest ecstasy producer, accounting for 23% of laboratory seizures in 2000-2001, the report said. Ecstasy abuse is highest in East Asia and Southeast Asia, in countries such as Thailand, followed by Europe and Australia.

Since the global AIDS education efforts of the 1990s, drug users have seen heroin as a dangerous narcotic and turned to "cleaner," synthetic options they think are safer, Costa said. "The problem is that few people die from using synthetic drugs," he explained. "There are no scary headlines of people dying of overdoses. Instead, there is a slow mental deterioration--danger by stealth." Amphetamines cause dependence and psychosis, while ecstasy may speed up the aging process and the onset of Alzheimer's-type symptoms, the organization said. Costa said synthetic drugs are seen as an almost acceptable feature of the party culture.