Drug dealers have continued to use cutting-edge digital technology, social media platforms and disinformation to sell their illegal produce, fuelling narcotics consumption globally, a UN-backed report launched on Tuesday showed.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) study recommends responding with the same methods, running counter-narcotics campaigns offering advice that can be trusted on popular online platforms.

“We can see that drug trafficking is not just carried out on the dark web. Legitimate e-commerce platforms are being exploited by criminals too,” said Jallal Toufiq, INCB President.

Criminal gangs take advantage of the chance to reach large global audiences on social media channels by turning them into marketplaces and posting inappropriate, misleading and algorithm-targeted content that is widely accessible to children and adolescents, the board noted.

The authors of the report observed a significant decline in opium poppy cultivation and heroin production in Afghanistan, following the Taliban’s ban on drugs. But South Asia’s methamphetamine trafficking boom is linked to its manufacture in Afghanistan with outlets in Europe and Oceania.

In Colombia and Peru, there has been a notable increase in illicit coca bush cultivation, rising by 13 percent and 18 per cent respectively in 2022.

Cocaine seizures also reached a record level in 2021 in West and Central Africa, a major transit region.

And Pacific island States have transitioned from being solely transit sites along drug trafficking routes to becoming destination markets for synthetic drugs.

In North America, the opioid crisis persists, with the number of deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone surpassing 70,000 in 2021. In Europe, several countries are pursuing a regulated market for cannabis for non-medical purposes, which, the INCB experts believe, may be inconsistent with drug control.

Other trends linked to drug dealing today include the use of encryption methods in communications and transactions and anonymous browsing on the darknet, as well as payments in hard-to trace cryptocurrencies, which increase the challenges for prosecutors.

The INCB report also highlighted how criminals relocate their operations to regions with less stringent law enforcement or lighter sanctions, often choosing countries where extradition can be evaded.

Latest data also emphasizes the heightened risk of deadly overdoses linked to the online availability of fentanyl – many times more addictive than heroin – and other synthetic opioids.

Another area of concern is telemedicine and online pharmacies. While such services have the potential to enhance healthcare access and simplify the prescription and delivery of life-saving medicines, illegal internet outlets that sell drugs without a prescription directly to consumers are a very real health risk.

The global trade in illicit pharmaceuticals is estimated at US$4.4 billion.

In many cases, it is impossible for consumers to know whether the drugs or medicines they are buying are counterfeit, banned or illegal.

To combat the online threat, the report’s authors insist that internet platforms should be used to raise awareness about drug addiction in support public health campaigns, especially targeting young people.

And given the global nature of the challenge, countries should cooperate to identify and respond to new threats, said INCB, whose 13 members are elected by the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).