Mapped: The Most Common Illicit Drugs in the World
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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.
Vintage Viz: China’s Export Economy in the Early 20th Century
This pie chart, circa 1914, is a fascinating breakdown of China’s export economy just prior to World War I.
Vintage Viz: China’s Export Economy in the Early 20th Century
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” is the oft-quoted first line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between .
A statement that is as profound as it is banal. In other words, when we do history, we’re a bit like tourists. If we really want to understand the past, we have to think like a local.
The infographic above, Aspects of Principal Exports of Chinese Goods to Foreign Countries , is the first in a series that we’re calling Vintage Viz , which presents a historical visualization along with the background and analytical tools to make sense of it.
Today, the People’s Republic of China is the second largest economy in the world, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a growing military power . But at the dawn of the 20th century, things were much, much different.
Opium and the Opening of China to the West
Early Sino-Western trade was restricted by the Qing emperors to three ports, and after 1757, just one, in what became known as the Canton System. This name came from the one remaining port city of the same name, present-day Guangzhou.
Foreign trade was tightly monitored and subject to stiff tariffs, and Western traders chafed under these restrictions. So when in 1839, Chinese authorities moved to shut down opium smuggling—an important source of profit for foreign merchants—Western powers saw their chance and used the pretext to revise the terms of trade by force.
In what became known as the Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, first Great Britain and then an Anglo-French alliance defeated imperial China and imposed punitive treaties that included indemnities and lowered tariffs, but also expanded the number of ports open to foreign traders, first to five and by 1911, to more than 50.
Westerners were exempted from local laws, Christian missionaries were allowed to proselytize freely, and the opium trade was legalized. Hong Kong was also ceded to Great Britain at this time.
The Treaty Port Era, also known as the Century of Humiliation , was perhaps too much for the country to bear. The weakened central government was beset by popular unrest, including the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), which killed 20 million people, and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), so-named for the secret society that led the movement, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists.
Eventually, the last Chinese emperor was deposed and a republic declared in 1911. Nevertheless, the government was too weak to impose its will, and was repeatedly challenged by warlords.
So as we approach the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and the period covered by our visualization, we find China weakened internally by civil strife, and externally by Western powers.
The History of this Century-Old Pie Chart
Aspects of Principal Exports of Chinese Goods to Foreign Countries captures Chinese exports for 1914, and comes from The New Atlas and Commercial Gazetteer of China: A Work Devoted to Its Geography & Resources and Economic & Commercial Development .
Originally published in 1917 and edited by Edwin J. Dingle for the Far Eastern Geographical Establishment, the volume contains a wealth of data for the period. According to the book’s Preface, it “seeks to give all the information that is essential to the business-man in regard to a country… about which less is known than in regard to any similar area in the world.”
The visualization breaks down total Chinese exports for 1914 in haikwan taels (hk. tls.), a unit of silver currency used to collect tariffs. In 1907, one haikwan tael was worth $0.79 U.S. dollars.
Official figures come from the Chinese Maritime Customs Service . This was set up by foreign consuls after the First Opium War to collect tariffs to guarantee the payment of treaty indemnities.
Exports in 1914 represented 345 million hk. tls., a 14.4% decrease from 1913, likely owing to the outbreak of the First World War that same year.
Apart from “Other Metals and Minerals, Sundries, etc,” which served as a catch-all category, the largest categories were silks and teas of various types, representing 22.6% and 10.4% of total exports respectively.
|Export Item||Value (hk. tls.)|
|Eggs, Fresh, Preserved and Frozen||4,192,535|
|Fire crackers and fire works||2,435,841|
|Mats and Matting||3,326,819|
|Oil, Bean and Nutgalls||6,027,967|
|Other Metals and Minerals, Sundries, etc||74,449,181|
|Silk Piece Goods||10,841,472|
|Silk, Raw, not Steam Filature||2,811,367|
|Silk, Raw, White, Steam Filature||37,384,485|
|Silk, Raw, Wild not Filatures||4,072,777|
|Silk, Raw, Yellow Steam Filatures||1,267,413|
|Silk, Raw, Yellow, (not Steam Filature)||4,439,073|
|Skins and Hides Undressed (Cow and Buffalo)||13,499,340|
|Skins, Goat Untanned||3,207,974|
|Tallow, Animals and Vegetables||3,175,270|
|Tea Brick, Black||6,711,019|
|Tea Brick, Green||2,323,259|
|Tin, in Slabs||7,978,558|
Below are some more details that emerge from this visualization.
All the Tea in China
The Chinese tea trade was the subject of another visualization in the Atlas. It shows that China had been steadily losing ground to British India. Between 1888-1892 Chinese exports to Great Britain were 242 million pounds against India’s 105 million pounds. By 1912-1913, India had surpassed China to export 279 million pounds against 198 million pounds.
In 1914, the majority of Chinese exports went to Russia, 902,716 piculs in all. A picul is equal to “as much as a man can carry on a shoulder-pole” or about 133 pounds.
The Silk Road to Profits
Silk has long been in demand in the West as a luxury good, giving its name to the overland trade route that connected East and West for centuries: the Silk Road.
In 1914, China was the largest producer and exporter of silks in the world. On an annual basis, China averaged 14 million pounds, compared to the number two spot, Japan, at 11 million pounds, and number three, Italy, at 9 million pounds. Together, these three controlled 81.7% of the global silk trade.
The Opium of the Masses?
The opium trade, the pretext that opened China to foreign trade, was still big money in 1914.
A total of 37 million hk. tls. were imported in 1914 from India, up 11.9% from 1908. This is actually down from a peak of 41 million hk. tls. in 1913.
In 1907, China signed the Ten Year Agreement with India, which ultimately phased out the opium trade. By 1917 the trade was all but extinguished.
Back to the Future
The Aspects of Principal Exports of Chinese Goods to Foreign Countries is a far cry from the contemporary trade picture. China’s top export in 2021 was in the category “telephones for cellular networks or other wireless networks,” and was worth $147.1 billion .
But it’s worth noting that China today is a direct result of this period. The resentment created during the Century of Humiliation would eventually help lead to Mao Zedong, the Long March, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
And in 1979, the Chinese central government would set up the first of their own “treaty ports,” in the form of special economic zones, places where foreign companies could set up shop. But this time, it wasn’t foreign powers who were making the rules.
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