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Illicit drugs are drugs that have been prohibited under international drug control treaties.1 

International statistics typically focus on four different groups of illicit drugs: opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, and cannabis. However, there is a range of other illicit drugs included in international drug control treaties, including plant-based drugs and synthetic hallucinogens. A comprehensive list of illicit drugs can be found in the UNODC’s publication ‘Terminology and Information on Drugs’.2

Excess consumption or dependency on illicit drugs can impact on overall health, mental wellbeing, and in many cases, the wellbeing of others. Not all illicit drugs have similar impacts on health and wellbeing: some cause much less harm than others.

On this page you can find a list of key insights as well as a list of visualizations on illicit drug use. This provides a global overview of illicit drug use, dependency disorders, and some of their impacts.

Key insights on Illicit drug use

People can die directly or indirectly from drug use

People can die from illicit drug use in several ways. 

The first is that the use of illicit drugs at any point in someone’s life can act as an indirect risk factor for premature death from disease or injury.

The second is that illicit drugs can result in direct deaths from drug dependency and overdoses.

The chart shows us that hundreds of thousands die indirectly or directly from illicit drug use each year.

Methods & data quality
  • These estimates come from the Global Burden of Disease study published annually by the Institute for Health Metrics (IHME). This is currently one of the few sources that produces global-level estimates across most countries on the prevalence and disease burden of substance use disorders.
  • There are large differences in the quality and availability of data across the world. While high-quality data in richer countries often exists, data on illicit drug use in poorer countries is often limited. The IHME Global Burden of Disease attempts to fill these gaps, but these estimates come with a high level of uncertainty. This is therefore also true for all global figures.
  • The IHME’s definition of a substance use disorder is based on the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Substance use disorders include alcohol and all illicit drugs (whether prescribed or otherwise) including opioids, cocaine, amphetamine, and cannabis. They do not include smoking and alcohol consumption.
  • The data presented here is for illicit drug use only. It does not include alcohol, or smoking, which we cover separately in our pages on Alcohol consumption and Smoking.
  • Illicit drugs include pharmaceutical drugs – such as heroin and other opioids and benzodiazepines; plant-based drugs – such as cocaine and cannabis; and synthetic drugs – such as amphetamines.

Opioids were responsible for the largest number of drug overdoses

Globally, more than 100,000 people die from drug overdoses every year. 

Most of these deaths are the result of opioid overdoses. Opioid deaths have risen steeply in recent years – most notably in the United States.

Opioids are used in prescription drugs and pain-relievers – such as OxyContin and Vicodin – in synthetic opioids such as fentanyl; or drugs such as heroin.

In their review, MacLean et al. (2021) provide a detailed analysis on the rise in opioid deaths.3

They describe the crisis as evolving in three phases, over several decades from the 1990s. The first phase involved an increase in the use of prescribed opioids as a result of lenient regulations on prescriptions and marketing by pharmaceuticals. The second phase involved a tightening of these restrictions alongside a shift in drug use towards heroin. The third phase – since 2013 – has seen a shift towards synthetic opioids including fentanyl. This has also involved a significant increase in treatment services.

Methods & data quality
  • These estimates come from the Global Burden of Disease study published annually by the Institute for Health Metrics (IHME). This is currently one of the few sources that produces global-level estimates across most countries on the prevalence and disease burden of substance use disorders.
  • There are large differences in the quality and availability of data across the world. While high-quality data in richer countries often exists, data on illicit drug use in poorer countries is often limited. The IHME Global Burden of Disease attempts to fill these gaps, but these estimates come with a high level of uncertainty. This is therefore also true for all global figures.

Opioid deaths in the US have risen steeply in recent years

Death rates from illicit drug overdoses are highest in the United States. A large driver of this has been a steep rise in opioid deaths over the last decade.

In the chart, we see death rates in the United States from overdoses of different drugs. Since 2010, death rates from opioids have more than tripled.

In 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public emergency.

Methods & data quality
  • This data comes from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER programme.
  • Death rates are measured as the number of people that die from overdoses per 100,000 people in the population. Unlike data from the IHME, these are ‘crude death rates’ that are not age-standardized.

The US has the highest death rates from opioids and illicit drugs

Opioids are responsible for the largest number of overdose deaths globally.

Death rates from illicit drugs are the highest in the United States. This is largely the result of a steep rise in opioid deaths in recent years.

This chart shows death rates from opioid overdoses, measured as the number of deaths per 100,000 people in the population.

This is not only the case for opioids: the US also has the highest death rate from amphetamine and cocaine overdoses.

Methods & data quality
  • Death rates are measured as the number of people that die from overdoses per 100,000 people in the population. Since the age and structure of populations will differ between countries and will change over time, death rates have been age-standardized. This means they assume the structure of the population is the same across countries, and over time.
  • These estimates come from the Global Burden of Disease study published annually by the Institute for Health Metrics (IHME). This is currently one of the few sources that produces global-level estimates across most countries on the prevalence and disease burden of substance use disorders.
  • There are large differences in the quality and availability of data across the world. While high-quality data in richer countries often exists, data on illicit drug use in poorer countries is often limited. The IHME Global Burden of Disease attempts to fill these gaps, but these estimates come with a high level of uncertainty. This is therefore also true for all global figures.

Just under 1% of the world has an illicit drug dependency

It’s estimated that just under 1% of the world population had some form of drug dependency – excluding alcohol and tobacco.

This chart shows estimates of the share of the population with an addiction or dependency on any form of illicit drug.

Methods & data quality
  • These estimates come from the Global Burden of Disease study published annually by the Institute for Health Metrics (IHME). This is currently one of the few sources that produces global-level estimates across most countries on the prevalence and disease burden of substance use disorders.
  • There are large differences in the quality and availability of data across the world. While high-quality data in richer countries often exists, data on illicit drug use in poorer countries is often limited. The IHME Global Burden of Disease attempts to fill these gaps, but these estimates come with a high level of uncertainty. This is therefore also true for all global figures.
  • The IHME’s definition of a substance use disorder is based on the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Substance use disorders include alcohol and all illicit drugs (whether prescribed or otherwise) including opioids, cocaine, amphetamine, and cannabis. They do not include smoking and alcohol consumption.
  • The data presented here is for illicit drug use only. It does not include alcohol, or smoking, which we cover separately in our pages on Alcohol consumption and Smoking.
  • Illicit drugs include pharmaceutical drugs – such as heroin and other opioids and benzodiazepines; plant-based drugs – such as cocaine and cannabis; and synthetic drugs – such as amphetamines.

Men are more likely to have a drug dependency

There are significant sex differences in the likelihood that someone develops an illicit drug dependency.

In the chart, we see the share of men that have a dependency on any type of illicit drug (on the y-axis) versus the share of women that do (on the x-axis). The grey line shows us where the rates in men and women would be equal. 

Almost every country lies above the grey line. This means that drug use disorder rates are higher in men than they are in women in almost all countries in the world.

Methods & data quality
  • These estimates come from the Global Burden of Disease study published annually by the Institute for Health Metrics (IHME). This is currently one of the few sources that produces global-level estimates across most countries on the prevalence and disease burden of substance use disorders.
  • There are large differences in the quality and availability of data across the world. While high-quality data in richer countries often exists, data on illicit drug use in poorer countries is often limited. The IHME Global Burden of Disease attempts to fill these gaps, but these estimates come with a high level of uncertainty. This is therefore also true for all global figures.
  • The IHME’s definition of a substance use disorder is based on the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Substance use disorders include alcohol and all illicit drugs (whether prescribed or otherwise) including opioids, cocaine, amphetamine, and cannabis. They do not include smoking and alcohol consumption.
  • The data presented here is for illicit drug use only. It does not include alcohol, or smoking, which we cover separately in our pages on Alcohol consumption and Smoking.
  • Illicit drugs include pharmaceutical drugs – such as heroin and other opioids and benzodiazepines; plant-based drugs – such as cocaine and cannabis; and synthetic drugs – such as amphetamines.

All our interactive charts on Opioids, cocaine, cannabis and illicit drugs