Mapped: The Most Common Illicit Drugs in the World
Despite strict prohibitory laws around much of the world, many common illicit drugs still see widespread use.
Humans have a storied and complicated relationship with drugs. Defined as chemical substances that cause a change in our physiology or psychology, many drugs are taken medicinally or accepted culturally, like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
But many drugs—including medicines and non-medicinal substances taken as drugs—are taken recreationally and can be abused. Each country and people have their own relationship to drugs, with some embracing the use of specific substances while others shun them outright.
What are the most common drugs that are considered generally illicit in different parts of the world? Today’s graphics use data from the UN’s World Drug Report 2021 to highlight the most prevalent drug used in each country.
What Types of Common Drugs Are Tracked?
The World Drug Report looks explicitly at the supply and demand of the international illegal drug market, not including commonly legal substances like caffeine and alcohol.
Drugs are grouped by class and type, with six main types of drugs found as the most prevalent drugs worldwide.
- Cannabis*: Drugs derived from cannabis, including hemp. This category includes marijuana (dried flowers), hashish (resin), and other for various other parts of the plant or derived oils.
- Cocaine: Drugs derived from the leaves of coca plants. Labeled as either cocaine salts for powder form or crack for cocaine processed with baking soda and water into rock form.
- Opioids: Includes opiates which are derived directly from the opium poppy plant, including morphine, codeine, and heroin, as well as synthetic alkaloids.
- Amphetamine-type Stimulants (ATS): Amphetamine and drugs derived from amphetamine, including meth (also known as speed), MDMA, and ecstasy.
- Sedatives and Tranquilizers: Includes other drugs whose main purpose is to reduce energy, excitement, or anxiety, as well as drugs used primarily to initiate or help with sleep (also called hypnotics).
- Solvents and Inhalants: Gases or chemicals that can cause intoxication but are not intended to be drugs, including fuels, glues, and other industrial substances.
The report also tracked the prevalence of hallucinogens—psychoactive drugs which strongly affect the mind and cause a “trip”—but no hallucinogens ranked as the most prevalent drug in any one country.
*Editor’s note: Recreational cannabis is legal in five countries, and some non-federal jurisdictions (i.e. states). However, in the context of this report, it was included because it is still widely illicit in most countries globally.
The Most Prevalent Drug in Each Country
According to the report, 275 million people used drugs worldwide in 2020. Between the ages of 15–64, around 5.5% of the global population used drugs at least once.
Many countries grouped different types of the same drug class together, and a few like Saudi Arabia and North Macedonia had multiple different drug types listed as the most prevalent.
But across the board, cannabis was the most commonly prevalent drug used in 107 listed countries and territories:
|Country or territory||Most Prevalent Drug(s)|
|Albania||Sedatives and tranquillizers (general)|
|Burkina Faso||Cannabis (general)|
|Central African Republic||Cannabis (herb)|
|Costa Rica||Cannabis (herb)|
|Côte d'Ivoire||Cannabis (herb)|
|Dominican Republic||Cocaine (powder)|
|El Salvador||Cannabis (herb)|
|Greece||Solvents and inhalants (general)|
|Hong Kong||Heroin, opium, opioids|
|Lithuania||Sedatives and tranquillizers (general)|
|New Zealand||Methamphetamine, solvent and inhalants|
|North Macedonia||Multiple types|
|Saudi Arabia||Multiple types|
|South Africa||Cannabis (general)|
|Sri Lanka||Cannabis (herb)|
|Syrian Arab Republic||Cannabis (hashish)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||Cocaine (crack)|
How prevalent is cannabis worldwide? 72 locations or more than two-thirds of those reporting listed cannabis as the most prevalent drug.
Unsurprisingly these include countries that have legalized recreational cannabis: Canada, Georgia, Mexico, South Africa, and Uruguay.
How Common Are Opioids and Other Drugs?
Though the global prevalence of cannabis is unsurprising, especially as it becomes legalized and accepted in more countries, other drugs also have strong footholds.
Opioids (14 locations) were the most prevalent drugs in the Middle-East, South and Central Asia, including in India and Iran. Notably, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, supplying more than 90% of illicit heroin globally.
Amphetamine-type drugs (9 locations) were the third-most common drugs overall, mainly in East Asia. Methamphetamine was the reported most prevalent drug in China, South Korea, and Japan, while amphetamine was only the most common drug in Bangladesh.
However, it’s important to note that illicit drug usage is tough to track. Asian countries where cannabis is less frequently found (or reported) might understate its usage. At the same time, the opioid epidemic in the U.S. and Canada reflects high opioid usage in the West.
As some drugs become more widespread and others face a renewed “war,” the landscape is certain to shift over the next few years.
Timeline: Cannabis Legislation in the U.S.
At the federal level, cannabis is illegal, but state laws differ. This graphic looks at the timelines of cannabis legislation in the U.S.
Timeline: Cannabis Legislation in the U.S.
At the federal level, cannabis is still considered an illegal substance. That said, individual states do have the right to determine their own laws around cannabis sales and usage.
This visual from New Frontier Data looks at the status of cannabis in every state and the timeline of when medical and/or recreational use became legal.
Cannabis Through the Years
In the U.S., the oldest legalese concerning cannabis dates back to the 1600s—the colony of Virginia required every farm to grow and produce hemp. Since then, cannabis use was fairly wide open until the 1930s when the Marihuana Tax Act was enforced, prohibiting marijuana federally but still technically allowing medical use.
Jumping ahead, the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, classifying cannabis as Schedule I drug—the same category as heroin. This prohibited any use of the substance.
However, the 1970s also saw a counter movement, wherein many states made the move towards decriminalization. Decriminalization means that although possessing cannabis remained illegal, a person would not be subject to jail time or prosecution for possessing certain amounts.
By the 1990s, some of the first states passed laws to allow the medical usage of cannabis, and by 2012 two states in the U.S.—Washington and Colorado—legalized the recreational use of cannabis.
Cannabis Legislation Today and Beyond
The MORE Act (the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act) was passed in the House early 2022, and if made law, it would decriminalize marijuana federally.
“This bill decriminalizes marijuana. Specifically, it removes marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.”– U.S. Congress
Cannabis still remains illegal at the federal level, but at the state levels, cannabis is now fully legal (both for medicinal and recreational purposes) in a total of 22 states.
Over 246 million Americans have legal access to some form of marijuana products with high THC levels. Looking to the future, many new cannabis markets are expected to open up in the next few years:
The earliest states expected to open up next for recreational cannabis sales are Minnesota and Oklahoma. There is always a lag between legalization and actual sales, wherein local regulatory bodies and governments set standards. States like Kentucky, on the other hand, aren’t likely to even legalize medicinal cannabis until 2028.
It’s estimated that by 2030, there will be 69 million cannabis consumers in the country, up 33% from 2022.
Overall, the U.S. cannabis market is likely an important one to watch as legal sales hit $30 billion in 2022. By the end of the decade, that number is expected to be anywhere from $58 billion to as much as $72 billion.
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