Reversing a long trend, hard drug abuse around the world is slowing down. In its annual World Drug Report, the United Nations says there has been a decline in the cultivation of coca and opium poppy from the world's two major drug-producing regions.

After half a century of significant growth of drug abuse, the report notes the tide is turning. It finds an estimated three percent of the world population, or 185 million people, abused so-called "soft" drugs during the last 12 months. It says cannabis is the most widely abused substance followed by amphetamine-type stimulants, such as ecstasy.

It says around 28 million people abuse cocaine or opiates, which include heroin, morphine and opium.

In South East Asia, the report says opium poppy cultivation continues to decline in Burma and Laos, while in the Andean region, coca cultivation has fallen for the fourth year in a row in all three producing countries, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

The report says the decline is mainly due to better law enforcement.

A senior official with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Francis Maertens, says Afghanistan produces three-quarters of the world's illicit opium and he says Afghanistan is now also producing heroin. He says the six countries that border on Afghanistan reported in the last year that 80 percent of their Afghan drug seizures were heroin and 20 percent was opium.

"Which means that they are transforming more and more locally in Afghanistan which means they are importing more and more of all the chemicals, precursors and so on that are required to transform opium into heroin," said Francis Maertens. "So, you have more and more clandestine laboratories in Afghanistan to transform opium into heroin and shift it to the different routes."

Mr. Maertens says the global heroin market is shifting away from developed countries toward transition and some developing countries.

In terms of health impacts, the report says people who use opiates have the most serious drug problem. They account for 67 percent of drug treatment in Asia, 61 percent in Europe and 47 percent in Oceania. It says methamphetamines are the main drug problem in South-East Asia.

While cocaine remains the most popular drug on the American continent, it says cocaine abuse among students in the United States is declining, largely due to improved treatment programs. It says cannabis remains the most widely used drug in Africa.

The report finds the number of deaths from drug abuse also has decreased, especially in Western Europe. Globally, some 200,000 people died of drug abuse in the year 2000. In an interesting contrast, the report cites World Health Organization figures showing that in the same year there were nearly five million deaths from tobacco