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Last Updated: Monday, 26 June 2006, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Alarm at Europe cocaine use rise
Pack of cocaine
The US remains the world's largest single cocaine market
A UN report says cocaine use in Europe has reached record levels with an estimated 3.5 million people taking the drug - a quarter of worldwide users.

Too many professional and educated people are using it and often denying their addiction, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says.

It complains that young people are confused by the uncritical way in which the media reports celebrity drug abuse.

The report also warns of a continuing rise in cannabis use around the world.

Onus on the rich

The US remains the world's largest single cocaine market, according to the report, with more than 40% of all users of the highly addictive drug based there.

It also says Colombia accounted for one third of global cocaine seizures in 2004.

Too many professional, educated Europeans use cocaine, often denying their addiction
Antonio Maria Costa,
UNODC executive director

UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa said it was up to richer countries to help the developing world fight the drugs problem - either by assisting in drug enforcement or by offering South American coca farmers the investments they need to switch to legal crops.

According to the UNODC, demand for cocaine is sharply up among better off people in Europe, despite record seizures of the drug and a trend showing a slight decline in global consumption in recent years.

Cannabis threat

Speaking at a press conference where the annual report was presented, Mr Costa said that demand for cocaine in Western Europe was "rising to alarming levels".

"I urge European Union governments not to ignore this peril.

"Too many professional, educated Europeans use cocaine, often denying their addiction, and drug abuse by celebrities is often presented uncritically by the media, leaving young people confused and vulnerable," Mr Costa added.

Man smoking cannabis
The report says it is a mistake to think cannabis a soft option

The report also warned about a continuing rise in cannabis use, estimated to have been consumed by 162 million people at least once since 2004 - equivalent to 4% of the worldwide population aged 15-64.

Mr Costa warned that cannabis was now much stronger than in past decades and that it should not be regarded as a "soft" drug.

"Today, the harmful characteristics of cannabis are no longer that different from those of other plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin," he said, referring to mounting evidence linking cannabis use to mental illness.

Drug seizures

The UN watchdog also warned that opium production in Afghanistan could surge again this year, saying efforts to stamp out production were being hampered by persistent lawlessness.

Taleban insurgent attacks were helping drug gangs exploit insecurity, the report said, but it added that opium production went down last year for the first time since the Taleban was toppled in 2001.

There was some good news in that authorities' confiscation of drugs, especially cocaine, reached record highs, Mr Costa noted.

The US uncovered the largest number of methamphetamine laboratories - more than 17,000 in 2004 - over 90% of those dismantled worldwide.

"Drug control is working and the world drug problem is being contained," Mr Costa said.

"In the past few years, worldwide efforts to reduce the threat posed by illicit drugs have halted a quarter-century-long rise in drug abuse that, if left unchecked, could have become a global pandemic."

However, he insisted that governments needed to do much more to curb both supply and demand.

"A coherent, long-term strategy can reduce supply, demand and trafficking... if this does not happen, it will be because some nations fail to take the drug issue seriously and pursue inadequate policies," Mr Costa said.

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