Illegal drug trade

Illegal drug trade
International drug routes.
Panamanian motor vessel Gatun during the largest cocaine bust in United States Coast Guard history (totalling 20 tons, worth over 600 million USD), off the coast of Panama.

The illegal drug trade is a global black market, dedicated to cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of those substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws. Most jurisdictions prohibit trade, except under license, of many types of drugs by drug prohibition laws.

A UN report said the global drug trade generated an estimated US$321.6 billion in 2003.[1] With a world GDP of US$36 trillion in the same year, the illegal drug trade may be estimated as slightly less than 1% (0.893%) of total global commerce.[citation needed] Consumption of illegal drugs is widespread globally.



Addictive drugs were first prohibited in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[2][3][4] An Illegal Drug Trade emerged. During the 19th century, China retaliated with imports of opium and two Opium Wars broke out. In the First Opium War the Chinese authorities had banned opium but the United Kingdom forced China to allow British merchants to trade opium with the general population. Smoking opium had become common in the 19th century and British merchants increased. Trading in opium was (as it is today in the heroin trade) extremely lucrative. As a result of this illegal trade an estimated two million Chinese people became addicted to the drug. The British Crown (via the treaties of Nanking and Tianjin) took vast sums of money from the Chinese government through this illegal trade which they referred to as "reparations".

Legal penalties

In many countries, drug smuggling carries a severe penalty, including the death penalty (for example, China and Singapore). In 2010, two people were sentenced to death in Malaysia for trafficking 1 kilogram/2.2 pounds of cannabis into the country.[5] On March 30, 2011, three Filipinos were executed by the Chinese government for drug trafficking.

In the USA, Federal law states that first time offenders be sentenced to a minimum term of imprisonment averaging 1 to 3 years.[6]

Drug trafficking is widely regarded as the most serious of drug offences around the world. However, sentencing often depends on the type of drug (and its classification in the country into which it is being trafficked) and where the drugs are sold and how they are distributed; for example if the drugs are sold to or distributed by underage people, then the penalties for trafficking may be harsher than in other circumstances.[6]

Effects of illegal drug trade on societies

The countries of drug production have been seen as the worst affected by prohibition. Even so, countries receiving the illegally-imported substances are also affected by problems stemming from drug prohibition. For example, Ecuador has allegedly absorbed up to 300,000 refugees from Colombia who are running from guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug lords, says Linda Helfrich. While some applied for asylum, others are still illegal, and the drugs that pass from Colombia through Ecuador to other parts of South America create economic and social problems.[7]

Violent crime

In many countries worldwide, the illegal drug trade is thought to be directly linked to violent crimes such as murder; this is especially true in third world countries, but is also an issue for many developed countries worldwide.[8]

In the late 1990s in the United States the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimated that 5% of murders were drug-related.[8]

After a crackdown by U.S. and Mexican authorities in the first decade of the 21st century (part of tightened borders security in the wake of the September 11 attacks), border violence inside Mexico surged, and the Mexican government estimated that 90% of the killings are drug-related.[9]

A report by the UK government's drug strategy unit that was subsequently leaked to the press, stated that due to the expensive price of highly addictive drugs heroin and cocaine, that drug use was responsible for the great majority of crime, including 85% for shoplifting, 70-80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies. "The cost of crime committed to support illegal cocaine and heroin habits amounts to £16 billion a year in the UK" (note: this is more than the entire annual UK Home Office budget).[10]


Due to its illicit nature, statistics about profits from the drug trade are largely unknown. In its 1997 World Drugs Report the UNODC estimated the value of the market at USD$400 billion, ranking drugs alongside arms and oil amongst the world's largest traded goods.[11] An online report published by the UK Home Office in 2007 estimated the illicit drug market in the UK at £4–6.6 billion a year[12]

In December 2009, the United Nations' Drugs and Crime Tsar Antonio Maria Costa claimed that illegal drug money saved the banking industry from collapse. He claimed he had seen evidence that the proceeds of organised crime were "the only liquid investment capital" available to some banks on the brink of collapse during 2008. He said that a majority of the $352bn (£216bn) of drugs profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result. "In many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital. In the second half of 2008, liquidity was the banking system's main problem and hence liquid capital became an important factor...Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade and other illegal activities... There were signs that some banks were rescued that way". Costa declined to identify countries or banks that may have received any drug money, saying that would be inappropriate because his office is supposed to address the problem, not apportion blame.[13]

Minors and the illegal drug trade in the US

The U.S. government's most recent 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that nationwide over 800,000 adolescents ages 12–17 sold illegal drugs during the twelve months preceding the survey.[14] The 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nationwide 25.4% of students had been offered, sold, or given an illegal drug by someone on school property. The prevalence of having been offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property ranged from 15.5% to 38.8% across state CDC surveys (median: 26.1%) and from 20.3% to 40.0% across local surveys (median: 29.4%).[15]

Despite over $7 billion spent annually towards arresting[16] and prosecuting nearly 800,000 people across the country for marijuana offenses in 2005 (FBI Uniform Crime Reports), the federally-funded Monitoring the Future Survey reports about 85% of high school seniors find marijuana “easy to obtain.” That figure has remained virtually unchanged since 1975, never dropping below 82.7% in three decades of national surveys.[17]

In 2009, the Justice Department identified more than 200 U.S. cities in which Mexican drug cartels "maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors" - up from 100 three years earlier.[18]

Trade of specific drugs


4 ounces of cannabis

While the recreational use of (and consequently the distribution of) cannabis is illegal in most countries throughout the world, it is available by prescription or recommendation in many places, including some US states and in Canada.[19] Cannabis use is tolerated in some areas, most notably the Netherlands which has legalized the possession and licensed sale (but not production) of the drug. Many nations have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Due to the hardy nature of the Cannabis plant, marijuana is grown all across the world and is today the world's most popular illegal drug with the highest availability. Cannabis is grown legally in many countries for industrial, non-drug use (known as hemp) as well. Other may be planted for other, domestic purpose such as seasoning in Aceh.


While the purchase and use of tobacco is legal for adults in most countries throughout the world, heavy taxation in some countries such as the United Kingdom has resulted in an extensive market for its illegal trade. Tobacco products such as name-brand cigarettes may be sold as low as one third of the retail price because of the lack of taxes which would be imposed throughout the legal distribution process. It was estimated in 2004 that smuggling a single truck containing up to 48,000 cartons of cigarettes into the United States could lead to a profit of around US$2 million.[20]

The source of the illegally-traded tobacco is often the proceeds from other crimes, such as store and transportation robberies.

A notable exception to the legal status of tobacco in most countries internationally is the kingdom of Bhutan, which made the sale of tobacco illegal in December 2004,[21] and since this event, a large supply of tobacco has been made available on the black market. In 2006, tobacco and betel nut were the most commonly seized illicit drugs in Bhutan.[22]


A field of opium poppies in Burma.

Up until fairly recently the majority of the world's heroin was produced in an area known as the Golden Triangle (Southeast Asia).[23] Today Afghanistan is by a very wide margin "the world's largest exporter of heroin".[24][25] In 2007, 93% of the opiates on the world market originated in Afghanistan.[26] This amounts to an export value of about $64 billion, with a quarter being earned by opium farmers and the rest going to district officials, insurgents, warlords and drug traffickers.[27] Another significant area where poppy fields are grown for the manufacture of heroin is Mexico.

According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, the price of heroin is typically valued 8 to 10 times that of cocaine on American streets, making it a high-profit substance for smugglers and dealers.[28] In Europe (except the transit countries Portugal and the Netherlands), for example, a purported gram of street heroin, usually consisting of 700–800 mg of a light to dark brown powder containing 5-10% heroin base, costs between 30 and 70 euros, making the effective value per gram of pure heroin between 300 and 700 euros. Heroin is generally a preferred target for smuggling and distribution over unrefined opium due to the cost-effectiveness and increased efficacy[citation needed] of heroin.

Heroin is a very easily smuggled drug because a small, quarter-sized vial can contain hundreds of doses. From the 1930s to the early 1970s, the so-called French Connection supplied the majority of US demand. Allegedly, during the Vietnam War, drug lords such as Ike Atkinson used to smuggle hundreds of kilos of heroin to the U.S. in coffins of dead American soldiers (see Cadaver Connection). Since that time it has become more difficult for drugs to be imported into the United States than it had been in previous decades, but that does not stop the heroin smugglers from getting their product onto U.S. soil. Purity levels vary greatly by region with, for the most part, Northeastern cities having the most pure heroin in the United States (according to a recently released[when?] report by the DEA, Camden and Newark, New Jersey and Philadelphia, have the purest street grade A heroin in the country).[citation needed]

Penalties for smuggling heroin and/or morphine are often harsh in most countries. Some countries will readily hand down a death sentence (e.g. Singapore) or life in prison for the illegal smuggling of heroin or morphine, which are both, internationally, Schedule I drugs under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.[citation needed]


Methamphetamine is another popular drug among distributors. Three common street names are "crystal meth", "meth", and "ice".[29]

According to the Community Epidemiology Work Group, the numbers of clandestine methamphetamine laboratory incidents reported to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database decreased from 1999 to 2009. During this same period, methamphetamine lab incidents increased in midwestern States (Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio), and in Pennsylvania. In 2004, more lab incidents were reported in Missouri (2,788) and Illinois (1,058) than in California (764). In 2003, methamphetamine lab incidents reached new highs in Georgia (250), Minnesota (309), and Texas (677). There were only seven methamphetamine lab incidents reported in Hawaii in 2004, though nearly 59 percent of substance abuse treatment admissions (excluding alcohol) were for primary methamphetamine abuse during the first six months of 2004. As of 2007, Missouri leads the United States in clandestine lab seizures, with 1,268 incidents reported.[30] Often canine units are used for detecting rolling meth labs which can be concealed on large vehicles, or transported on something as small as a motorcycle. These labs are more difficult to detect than stationary ones, and can be often obscured with the legal cargo on big trucks.[31]

Methamphetamine is sometimes used in an injectable form, placing users and their partners at risk for transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.[32] "Meth" can also be inhaled, most commonly vaporized on aluminum foil, or through a test tube or light bulb fashioned into a pipe. This method is reported to give "an unnatural high" and a "brief intense rush".[33]

In South Africa methamphetamine is called "tik" or "tik-tik".[citation needed] Children as young as eight are abusing the substance, smoking it in crude glass vials made from light bulbs.[citation needed] Since methamphetamine is easy to produce, the substance is manufactured locally in staggering quantities.[citation needed]


Temazepam, a strong hypnotic benzodiazepine, is illicitly manufactured in clandestine laboratories (called jellie labs) to supply the increasingly high demand for the hypnotic drug internationally.[34] Many clandestine temazepam labs are in Eastern Europe. The way in which they manufacture the temazepam is through chemical alteration of diazepam, oxazepam or lorazepam.[35] Clandestine "jellie labs" have been identified and shutdown in Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Latvia and Belarus.[36]

In the United Kingdom, temazepam is the most widely-abused legal, prescription drug[citation needed]. It's also the most commonly abused benzodiazepine in Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, India, Russia, People's Republic of China, New Zealand, Australia and some parts of Southeast Asia[citation needed]. In Sweden it has been banned due to a problem with drug abuse issues and a high rate of death caused by temazepam alone relative to other drugs of its group. Surveys in many countries show that temazepam, heroin, cocaine, MDMA, cannabis, nimetazepam, and amphetamines rank among the top drugs most frequently abused.[37][38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45][46][47]

U.S. Government involvement

The U.S. Federal Government is an opponent of the illegal drug trade; however, state laws vary greatly and in some cases contradict federal laws. Despite the US government's official position against the drug trade, US government agents and assets have been implicated in the drug trade and were caught and investigated during the Iran-Contra scandal, implicated in the use of the drug trade as a secret source of funding for the USA's support of the Contras. Page 41 of the December 1988 Kerry report to the US Senate[48] states that "indeed senior US policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contra's funding problem."

Acclaimed investigator and former DEA agent Michael Levine has alleged that the CIA participated in orchestrating the 1980 Cocaine Coup in Bolivia to install an Operation Condor military government, in place of the pre-coup civilian government. The pre-coup government had collaborated with the DEA in bringing leaders of the Roberto Suarez cartel to justice, and Levine alleges that the CIA not only intervened judicially to release the extradited cartel leaders and allow their flight to Bolivia, but also enabled them to collaborate with right-wing military factions in overthrowing the civilian government that had collaborated with the DEA. The drug links of the coup government were obvious to the international community, which led to the coup becoming termed "the Cocaine Coup" by historians. Levine alleges that one of the CIA agents who participated in the coup was Klaus Barbie, the former SS Nazi known as the "Butcher of Lyon," who had previously collaborated with the CIA in Bolivia during the capture and execution of Che Guevara.

Contrary to its official goals, the US has suppressed research on drug usage, although the CIA researched regardless during MKULTRA. For example, in 1995 the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) announced in a press release the publication of the results of the largest global study on cocaine use ever undertaken. However, a decision in the World Health Assembly banned the publication of the study. In the sixth meeting of the B committee the US representative threatened that "If WHO activities relating to drugs failed to reinforce proven drug control approaches, funds for the relevant programmes should be curtailed". This led to the decision to discontinue publication. A part of the study has been released.[49] Several government-sponsored reports by commissioned experts have pointed to public substance abuse treatment as opposed to criminalization as the only effective way to battle the public health crisis caused by drugs; these recommendations have been mostly ignored by US government officials, and in some cases suppressed.

See also

International coordination:

Case studies:

US specific:


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Further reading

  • Murillo, Luis E. (1995). The Noriega Mess: The Drugs, the Canal, and Why America Invaded. 1096 pages, illustrated. Berkeley: Video Books. ISBN 0-923444-02-5.

External links

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