updated 2/19/2009 6:47:33 PM ET 2009-02-19T23:47:33

Cocaine smuggling to Europe is dramatically increasing through West Africa, posing a substantial threat to the stability of a region already troubled by war and poverty, an international watchdog warned Thursday.

The independent International Narcotics Control Board called on the U.N. and other donors to provide money and expertise to help fight smuggling, particularly in West African countries like Guinea-Bissau.

"(If European nations want) to stop the cocaine coming to them, it is in their interest to help the West African countries," said Jonathan Lucas, the head of U.N. drug control efforts in southern Africa, who backed spending for training and equipment to help African police, judges and customs agents fight trafficking.

South Africa, the continent's economic hub, also faces the risk of traffickers looking for markets and places to launder drug money, Lucas said.

In its annual report for 2008, the Vienna-based group also said criminal groups were setting up fake companies in developing countries, especially Africa, to obtain chemicals they need to make drugs. Traffickers then reroute the chemicals for processing into drugs elsewhere, notably in the Americas.

Mexico's powerful drug cartels were largely responsible for the fake firms in Africa, according to Rossen Popov, a U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime expert at the report's launch in Vienna.

"It's the weakness of the local governments," he explained

Lax controls
Traffickers are taking advantage of lax controls to legally import substances needed to produce amphetamine-type stimulants such as methamphetamine and Ecstasy.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Togo were among those most targeted by traffickers in Africa over the past two years.

In Ethiopia alone, authorities recently seized 12.5 tons of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine ordered using false licenses, it said. Ten tons of a drug used to make methamphetamine was also found recently in Kinshasa, Congo.

To fight the problem, the report called on countries exporting ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to Africa to "verify the legitimacy" of all shipments and urged African nations to boost their controls.

The report also noted a significant increase in imports of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in some South American countries, apparently to meet the needs of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories in Mexico and elsewhere.

It also warned that a lack of security in Afghanistan was severely hampering efforts to tackle the country's drug problem. Despite shrinking opium cultivation areas, Afghanistan still produces more than 90 percent of the world's illicit opium, the report said.

Cough syrup abuse
The board also cautioned that drug traffickers are increasingly using courier services to smuggle narcotics.

It also found evidence that cough syrups containing narcotic drugs such as codeine are being abused around the world, mainly by young people. Iran estimates that 100,000 people abuse cough syrup containing codeine. In Bangladesh, 4.3 percent of patients seeking drug treatment in 2007 indicated they were addicted to codeine cough syrups, the report said.

Turning to legal drugs, the board expressed concern that millions of people around the world suffer needlessly because they do not have enough access to painkillers.

"Even in countries that grow the raw materials from which those medicines are derived, it can happen that less than 1 percent of the population have access to appropriate pain relief," it said.

One U.S-based advocacy group criticized the report, saying the board favored "politics over science" and ignored "the failures and harmful consequences of the global drug prohibition regime."

"The INCB report seems sadly irrelevant to the most important issues in drug control today," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

More on:   codeine | Ecstasy

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