Tough controls on illegal drugs have limited the global death toll from narcotics, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said Wednesday, rejecting a "growing chorus" calling for drugs to be legalized.
Statistics in the United Nations' World Drug Report, which was released Wednesday, show there are between 20-24 million serious drug users around the world, or less than one percent of the world's population, UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa told a news conference here.
An estimated 200,000 people die every year of drug-related causes, he said.
Both statistics are far below the third of the world population who use tobacco, the five million who die yearly of tobacco-related causes and nearly two million who die because of alcohol, and are "evidence that controls on drugs have contained the problem, at least in terms of casualties," said Costa.
The authors of the UN drug report say the vastly higher death toll from tobacco and alcohol is not because the two legal substances are more dangerous than drugs but because "they are legal and consequently more available."
"If currently illegal substances were made legal their popularity would surely increase, perhaps reaching the levels of licit addictive substances, increasing the related morbidity and mortality," the report says.
In a preface to the UN report, which shows that production of cannabis, cocaine and heroin declined or stabilized around the world last year, while synthetic drugs increased, Costa rejected calls to legalize drugs.
"There has been a limited but growing chorus among politicians, the press and even in public opinion saying drug control is not working," Costa said.
"While changes are needed, they should be in favor of different means to protect society against drugs rather than by pursuing the goal of abandoning protection," he said.
Law enforcement should focus on drug traffickers instead of users, Costa said, stressing that "people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution."
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's drug czar Gil Kerlikowske ruled out the possibility of a nationwide legalization of drugs in the United States.
"My top priority will be to intensify the efforts to reduce the demand for drugs which fuels crime and violence around the world," Kerlikowske told the news conference.
"As regards legalization, it's not in the president's vocabulary and it's not in mine," he said.