South American Cocaine Use Surges As US Use Falls: UNODC

Brazil is the second largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) recent World Drug Report revealed that while cocaine use in Europe and the United States has declined over the past decade, South America has seen an alarming rise, driven largely by use in Brazil.

The US, which remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world, has seen a marked drop in both the prevalence of use and seizures of cocaine since 2006, according to the report. This has been explained partly by the approximate 25 percent decrease in coca bush cultivation in Colombia in the period 2011-2012 as the country is estimated to supply 95.5 percent of the United States’ cocaine. As one of the largest cultivators in the world, Colombia has seen total coca cultivation fall from over 140,000 hectares in 2001, to just 48,000 hectares in 2012.

A similar trend has taken place in Central and Western Europe where cocaine seizures decreased from a record high of 120 tons in 2006, to just over 50 tons in 2009, suggesting diminished availability on the market. In line with this fall, past-year prevalence of cocaine use dropped from 1.3 percent in 2010, to 1.0 percent in 2012 in Central and Western Europe.

Despite the drops in both regions, it must be noted that the 2014 UNODC report suggests a leveling off of use, and, in some cases, a small resurgence of the cocaine market in North America, and in Central and Western Europe.

Conversely, in South America, past-year cocaine consumption has risen drastically from almost 2 million people in the period 2004-2005, to 3.35 million in 2012, the UNODC found. One of the primary drivers of this is the region’s economic powerhouse; Brazil. This country, in particular, has seen a startling rise in its cocaine market since the beginning of the 21st century, to a point where Brazil is now the second largest consumer of cocaine in the world and the world’s largest consumer of crack and other cocaine derivatives. But, why is it only in the past decade or so that South America -- and Brazil specifically -- have emerged as one of the world’s most significant areas for cocaine use?

Firstly, because of its geographical location, Brazil has become an increasingly important player in the international trade of cocaine. As well as being the largest country in terms of land mass and population in South America, Brazil  shares just under half (48.6 percent) of its land borders with the three largest cocaine producing countries in the world; Bolivia (3,403km), Colombia (1,790km), and Peru (2,659km). To the east, its easy access to the Atlantic Ocean makes Brazil an ideal transit country for  cocaine heading to West Africa and Europe. While to the west, the large and porous areas of Brazil’s borders are the ideal location for which drug traffickers can move their goods from the Andean region.

Despite efforts to stem the flow of narcotics into the country in recent years -- including the Bolivia-Brazil Action Plan, and the massive border securitization program it embarked upon in 2011 -- Brazil has had little success in cutting supply. The border it shares with Bolivia, where the Guapore River makes up over half of the frontier, is especially problematic for policing. As a result, the UNODC World Drug Report 2013 found that over half of Brazil’s cocaine is now arriving from Bolivia, while it is estimated that between 60 and 80 percent of Bolivia’s cocaine is destined for Brazil.

It isn’t just the porous borders which provide incentives for drug traffickers to move cocaine into Brazil; factors including Brazil’s newly emerging middle class, a fast developing economy and rapid urbanization have all fuelled the increase in domestic demand for the drug. After a period defined by "stagflation", increased inequality and high levels of poverty, economic reforms in the 1990s and early 21st century paved the way for increased growth, lower levels of inflation, and, as The Economist described it, an “exceptional” decrease in Brazil’s poverty rates. This culminated in the coining of the acronym the "BRIC" countries which was used to group together the fastest growing emerging markets at the time; Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Most important in all of this is that during this period Brazil managed to lift 30 million people into its new middle class, as NPR notes. With increased disposable incomes, the new middle class have been spending larger proportions of their money on drugs, more specifically alcohol and cocaine. This increase in demand saw Brazil become the largest consumer of cocaine in South America in 2009, accounting for over a third of the region's cocaine use. Additionally, cocaine remains highly prevalent in Brazil’s colleges where, according to Brazil’s National Drug Policy Secretariat (SENAD), use among college students sat at around 3 percent  of the population in 2009.

The thriving trade of cocaine into Brazil means, additionally, that there are an increased amount of derivatives available. Thus, it isn’t just the new middle class that constitute the market, but those who remain poor and marginalized, also. Cheaper and more potent derivatives of the drug, including crack and "oxi," have become increasingly ubiquitous among Brazil’s lower class, especially in the urbanized areas of Brazil’s cities where they can be purchased for as little as $1 per hit. The most notorious example of what some deem to be a national crack "epidemic,"  is the area in Sao Paulo known as "Crackland," one which has gained increased media attention in the run up to the World Cup. 

If use rates in the Northern Hemisphere continue to remain the same, or even fall further, in the near future, it would not be surprising to see continued growth in South America's cocaine market as traffickers turn their attention elsewhere.