The illegal drug trade is a worldwide black market consisting of production, distribution, packaging, and sale of illegal psychoactive substances. The illegality of the black markets purveying the drug trade is relative to geographic location, and the producing countries of the drug markets (many South American, Far East, and Middle East countries) are not as inclined to have "zero-tolerance" policies as the consuming countries of the drug trade (mostly the United States and Europe).
The economic reality of the massive profiteering inherent to the drug trade serves to extend its reach despite the best efforts of law enforcement agencies worldwide. In the wake of this reality, the social consequences (crime, violence, imprisonment, social unrest) of the drug trade are undeniably problematic. The solution to the problems of illegal drug trafficking lies not in tougher laws or law enforcement but in the attitudes of people toward the sale and consumption of such items.
Early drug laws1921 photograph of Chinese Maritime Officers with 300lbs of smuggled morphine shipped in cylinders of soda sulphate from Japan.
Although the present "War on Drugs" is a distinctly modern phenomenon, drug laws have been a common feature of human culture throughout history.
Perhaps the earliest recorded example in the old world is the prohibition of the use of alcohol under Islamic law (Sharia), which is usually attributed to passages in the Qur'an purportedly dating from the seventh century. Some Muslim scholars assert that this prohibition actually addresses only the abuse of alcohol, but they do not have sufficient numbers or authority to override the familiar total prohibition. Although Islamic law is often interpreted as prohibiting all intoxicants (not only alcohol), the ancient practice of hashish smoking has continued throughout the history of Islam, against varying degrees of resistance. A major campaign against hashish-eating Sufis was conducted in Egypt in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, resulting, among other things, in the burning of fields of cannabis, and the public torture of hashish users.
Religious intolerance was also the motivation for drug prohibition in Christian Europe. In a move interpreted as support of the efforts of the Spanish Inquisition against the Arabs, in a 1484 fiat, Pope Innocent VIII banned the use of cannabis. The persecution of heretics in the form of witch-hunts also gathered momentum around this time, and frequently targeted users of medicinal and hallucinogenic herbs. The Inquisition proceeded apace in Meso-America and South America, where peyote (péyotl), ololiúqui, toloáche, teonanácatl, and other sacred plants of the Mexican culture were prohibited as works of the devil.
Coffee almost followed the same fate as cannabis, as its use spread from Ethiopia through the Middle East to Europe. Its use was banned in the Middle East on numerous occasions as in conflict with Islamic law, but eventually it came to be accepted. The introduction of coffee in Europe from Muslim Turkey also prompted calls for it to be banned as the Devil's work, however Pope Clement VIII sanctioned its use, declaring that it was "so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it."
In late Qing Imperial China, opium imported by the British East India Company was vastly consumed by all social classes in Southern China. Between 1821 and 1837 imports of the drug increased five-fold. The Chinese government attempted to end this trade, on public health grounds. The effort was initially successful with the destruction of all British opium stock in May 1839. However, to protect this trade, the British declared war on China (First Opium War). China was defeated and the war which ended with the Treaty of Nanking, which protected foreign opium smugglers from Chinese law. A related American treaty promised to end the smuggling of opium by Americans. It took until the next Opium War for the trade to be legalized. The resulting trade greatly weakened Chinese society, and set into motion a chain of events that would lead to the massive Taiping Rebellion.
Twentieth centuryA U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent displays a large bag of seized counterfeit Viagra pharmaceuticals.
The next great wave of anti-drug legislation began in the late nineteenth century, and continues to the present day. The United States has been the driving force in the present-day "War on Drugs."
The first law outright prohibiting the use of a specific drug was a San Francisco, California, ordinance which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens in 1875. This was followed by other laws throughout the country, and federal laws which barred Chinese people from trafficking in opium. Though the laws affected the use and distribution of opium by Chinese immigrants, no action was taken against the producers of such products as laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, commonly taken as a panacea by white Americans. The dividing line was usually the manner in which the drug was ingested. Chinese immigrants smoked it, while it was included in various kinds of (generally liquid) medicines for people of European descent. The laws were aimed at smoking opium, but not otherwise ingesting it.1 As a result of this discrepancy, modern commentators believe that these laws were racist in origin and intent.
Cocaine was prohibited in the first part of the twentieth century. Newspapers used terms like "Negro Cocaine Fiends" and "Cocainized Niggers" to drive up sales, causing a nationwide panic about the rape of white women by black men, high on cocaine.
This was followed by the Harrison Act, passed in 1914, which required sellers of opiates and cocaine to get a license (which were usually only distributed to white people). While originally intended to require paper trails of drug transactions between doctors, drug stores, and patients, it soon became a prohibitive law. The law's wording was quite vague; it was originally intended as a revenue tracking mechanism that required prescriptions for opiates. It became precedent that any prescription for a narcotic given to a drug addict by a physician or pharmacist-even in the course of medical treatment for addiction-constituted conspiracy to violate the Harrison Act. In the Supreme Court decision Jin Fuey Moy v. United States, 254 U.S. 189 (1920) the court upheld that it was a violation of the Harrison act even if a physician provided prescription of a narcotic for an addict of any kind and thus, was subject to criminal prosecution. The supporters of the Harrison Act did not support blanket prohibition of the drugs involved.2 This is also true of the later Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Soon, however, the people who were allowed to issue the licenses did not do so, effectively banning the drugs.
The American judicial system did not initially accept drug prohibition. Prosecutors argued that possessing drugs was a tax violation, as no legal licenses to sell drugs were in existence; hence, a person possessing drugs must have purchased them from an unlicensed source. After some wrangling, this was accepted as federal jurisdiction under the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The prohibition of alcohol commenced in the United States in 1920, and Finland in 1919. Because alcohol was the most popular recreational drug in these countries, reactions to its prohibition were very different to those of other drugs, which were commonly perceived to be associated with racial and ethnic minorities. Public pressure led to the repealing of alcohol prohibition in 1933, in the United States and 1932, in Finland. Residents of many provinces of Canada also experienced alcohol prohibition for similar periods of time in the first half of the twentieth century. In Sweden, a referendum in 1922, decided against an alcohol prohibition law (with 51 percent of the votes against and 49 percent for prohibition), but starting in 1914 (nationwide from 1917) and until 1955, Sweden employed an alcohol rationing system with personal liquor ration books.
1937 saw the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act. In response to rising drug use amongst young people and the counter-culture in particular, efforts to enforce prohibition were strengthened in many countries from the late 1960s onwards. In 1972, United States President Richard Nixon announced the commencement of the so-called "War on Drugs." Later, President Reagan added the position of drug czar to the President's Executive Office.
Support at an international level for the prohibition of non-medical drug use has been a consistent feature of United States policy during both Republican and Democratic administrations, to such an extent that U.S. support for foreign governments is sometimes contingent on adherence to U.S. drug policy. Major milestones in this campaign include the successful introduction of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971, and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988.
In 1973, New York State introduced mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life imprisonment for possession of more than four ounces (113g) of a hard drug, called the Rockefeller drug laws after New York Governor and later Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Similar laws were introduced across the United States.
California's broader "three strikes and you're out" policy, adopted in 1994, was the first mandatory sentencing policy to gain widespread publicity and was subsequently adopted in most United States jurisdictions. This policy mandates life imprisonment for a third criminal conviction of any offense.
A similar "three strikes" policy was introduced to the United Kingdom by the Conservative government in 1997. This legislation enacted a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years for those convicted for a third time of a drug trafficking offense involving a class A drug.
Prohibition of drugs
The regulation of drugs varies in many countries; cannabis and hashish, for example, are sometimes legal for personal use, though not sale. In some countries, Dextromethorphan is available in ordinary over-the-counter products such as cough medicines. Alcohol possession and consumption by adults is today banned only in Islamic countries and various parts of India. The United States, Finland, and Canada banned alcohol in the early part of the twentieth century; this was called Prohibition. Tobacco is not illegal for adults in most countries, with the notable exception of Bhutan. In some parts of the world, provisions are made for the use of traditional sacraments like Ayahuasca, Iboga, and Peyote. In Gabon, Africa, iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) has been declared a national treasure and is used in rites of the Bwiti religion. The active ingredient, ibogaine, is proposed as a treatment of opioid withdrawal and various substance use disorders.
In countries where alcohol and tobacco are legal, certain measures are frequently undertaken to discourage use of these drugs. For example, packages of alcohol and tobacco sometimes communicate warnings directed towards the consumer, communicating the potential risks of partaking in the use of the substance. These drugs also frequently have special sin taxes associated with the purchase thereof, in order to recoup the losses associated with public funding for the health problems the use causes in long-term users. Restrictions on advertising also exist in many countries, and often a state holds a monopoly on manufacture, distribution, marketing, and/or the sale of these drugs.
Arguments for legalization of drugs
Many believe what persons do in private should not be regulated by the government. It is argued that persons should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies, including the recreational use of drugs, as long as they do not harm others. Such arguments often cite the harm principle of philosopher John Stuart Mill, who urged that the state had no right to intervene to prevent individuals from doing something that harmed them, if no harm was thereby done to the rest of society: "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" and "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." The argument is that drug use is a victimless crime and as such the government has no right to prohibit it or punish drug consumers, much like the government does not forbid overeating, which causes significantly more deaths per year. This can be equated with the quest for freedom of thought.
The war on drugs is extremely costly to such societies that outlaw drugs in terms of taxpayer money, lives, productivity, the inability of law enforcement to pursue mala in se crimes, and social inequality. Some proponents of legalization say that the financial and social costs of drug law enforcement far exceed the damages that the drugs themselves cause.3
Legalization would reduce the profits of drug dealing. The illegal drug business is very profitable since the price of a product increases when it is made illegal and a black market arises.
Many cultures have used, and still use, the same drugs that are illegal under prohibition for both medicine and comfort with success.4 It can be argued that if the benefits of a drug can be made clear, then the prohibition of the drug is unfounded. It has been shown that there may be legitimate medical uses to various illegal drugs, such as use of MDMA for cognitive enhancement in people with Parkinson's Disease,5 or its administration for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, such as people who have been raped.6
It is also argued that legalizing drugs would be beneficial to public health. By selling drugs in state clinics or stores, the government would be able to maintain quality control over drug sales. As with alcohol, government agencies would guarantee purity and safety. Producers and traffickers currently sell poisonously diluted drugs because they are cheaper and easier to import. Legalization would allow a control of the diluted form and extent, reducing the risk of drug poisoning or overdose.
Because disputes cannot be resolved through legal means, participants at every level of the illegal drug industry are inclined to compete with one another through violence. Some statistics have shown that a large percentage of murders recorded are a result of the drug trade. This plays a role in the gun politics debate due to the number of drug-related murders that are committed with a firearm.
Many have argued that the arbitrariness of drug prohibition laws from the medical point of view, especially the theory of harm reduction, worsens the problems around these substances.
Arguments against the legalization of drugs
One common reason given for the prohibition of the use of certain drugs is to prevent an increase in health risks to those who might use prohibited drugs. Possible immediate detrimental health effects include altered awareness, reduced motor control, poisoning, and death by overdose. Prohibited drugs may also detrimentally impact broader long term measures of health and well being, such as educational performance, standard-of-living, and incidence of depression. Health risk profiles may vary substantially between different prohibited drugs.
The U.S. government has argued that illegal drugs are "far more deadly than alcohol" because "although alcohol is used by seven times as many people as drugs, the number of deaths induced by those substances is not far apart."7 In many cases, though there is contention as to whether apparent correlations between use of a prohibited drug and an increased health risk results from the drug use itself or results from other factors such as the prohibition of drugs (or related social/sociological/legal issues related to such prohibition), economic situations, or social situations.
Moral and religious
Some proponents of drug prohibition, such as members of the Temperance movement, support drug prohibition on the basis that many of the perceived problems or flaws of society are caused by the use of drugs or drug addiction. As to maintain consistency with this stance, these proponents often call for prohibition of alcohol. Some hold the position that consciously altering one's mind or state of consciousness is morally unjustifiable, and or against God's will as the creator of the human mind.8
For example, the Qur'an advises against the use of "al-khamri" (intoxicants, derived from "khamara," to cover, that is, substances that "cover one's mind" or "cloud one's judgment"), saying, "in them there is a gross sin, and some benefits for the people. But their sinfulness far outweighs their benefit" (2:219), and that they are "abominations of the devil; you shall avoid them, that you may succeed."
The Bible does not include specific references to drugs, although it does make frequent mention of wine. Isaiah 5:11-12 was a key quote of the Temperance movement:
Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of his hands.
In Buddhism, it is considered wrong to use drugs that lead to carelessness or heedlessness (the fifth precept of The Five Precepts).
In secular philosophy, as drug use is largely focused on individual or group leisure, drug taking is sometimes criticized as a self-centered, non-altruistic, or selfish activity, and is subject to similar moral criticism leveled at egoism and hedonism. This subject also brings up the question of how heavily morality should be legislated.
Some people, especially those who might otherwise support drug legalization, are against it because of the impact upon society of the commercial exploitation of the addictive potential of drugs. The basic concept is that tobacco and alcohol are extremely popular even though they are relatively more dangerous than many illegal drugs and are subjectively less pleasurable. This, critics say, is attributable to the profit motive and large marketing campaigns of tobacco and alcohol companies. If these same companies were able to sell drugs that were arguably more addictive and pleasurable, then, critics say, even more people would become addicted because of marketing and additives.
This genre of critics is pessimistic that a system could never be created whereby drugs could be legalized but not be commercially exploited. They often call for reinstated prohibition of alcohol and tobacco, or rather regulatory approaches to curb substance use such as: Taxation, advertising bans, retail outlet and venue licensing, control over venue design, drinking curfews, and so on. One factor critics point to is the tremendous lobbying power of alcohol and tobacco companies, as well as the large areas of commerce that are already related to illegal drugs, such as t-shirts about drugs, or songs about drugs. These critics also dismiss the idea that legalizing drugs will make them cheaper, pointing to the fact that most brands of alcohol are more expensive than most illegal drugs for an equivalent level of inebriation (this might be true in the U.S., UK, Scandinavian, Muslim and some other countries, but is not true in most other countries; also, prescription drugs, as opioids, are much cheaper, when legally bought, than similar illegal drugs).
Many of these critics feel that those involved in the production of certain currently legal drugs such as tobacco and prescription opioids are already profiting off of the addiction of their users. This criticism is directed not only toward the commercial exploitation of physiological addiction, but also of psychological addiction, which in addition to drug use can occur in relation to many types of behavior, for example gambling, overeating, and economic consumption. However, the ability of companies to advertise tobacco goods has been severely limited in countries such as Britain, where advertising is banned for tobacco. A similar measure could easily be applied (and is likely to be) if currently illegal intoxicants were legalized.
Illegal drug trade
In jurisdictions where legislation restricts or prohibits the sale of certain popular drugs, it is common for an (illegal) drug trade to develop. For example, the United States Congress has identified a number of controlled substances, with corresponding drug trades.
Most nations consider drug trafficking a very serious problem. In 1989, the United States intervened in Panama with the goal of disrupting the drug trade coming from that nation. The Indian government has several covert operations in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent to keep a track of various drug dealers. Some estimates placed the value of the global trade in illegal drugs at around US$400 billion in the year 2000; that, added to the global trade value of legal drugs at the same time, totals to an amount higher than the amount of money spent for food in the same period of time. In the 2005 United Nations World Drug Report, the value of the global illicit drug market for the year 2003 was estimated at US$13 billion at the production level, at US$94 billion at the wholesale level, and at US$322 billion based on retail prices and taking seizures and other losses into account.
Major consumer countries include the United States and European nations, although consumption is world-wide. Major producer countries include Afghanistan (opium), Bolivia (primarily cocaine), and Colombia (primarily cocaine declining in the past few years).
Trade of illegal drugsPanamanian motor vessel Gatun during a significant cocaine bust (20 tons) by the Coast Guards, off the coast of Panama.
The market for illegal drugs is massive. It is estimated that the global drug trade is worth $321 billion.9 Being a black market, huge profits are created from the scarcity and risk involved. Some of those illegal drugs sold for high profits include heroin, anabolic steroids, marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin mushrooms, opium, and Methamphetamine.
Illegal drugs can be developed in a number of ways. Some, such as opium and marijuana, can be grown naturally while others, such as LSD, are produced synthetically in laboratories. The scale at which these drugs are produced can be as small as a backyard garden to as large as a multi-acre farm or warehouse devoted to the production of drugs.
The people involved in producing illegal drugs often come from a few main groups. First are members of organized crime syndicates. Organized crime has an advantage over others in their organizational backing and ability to create economies of scale through massive manpower. Organized crime syndicates also often have experience with violence, which often is an unfortunate byproduct of the drug trade. Second are farmers with no alternative. Crops of illegal drugs are often more profitable than legitimate crops and as such offer great incentives to farmers. This has been the case in Afghanistan with opium.10 Another group often involved in the production of drugs are governments themselves. While the governments may not actually produce the drugs, often times officials are complicit in the distribution and transportation of these drugs, turning a blind eye due to bribery or intimidation on the part of those producing the drugs.
CannabisA box of Cannabis
In World Drug report 2006, UNODC focused on The New Cannabis, distribution of stronger marijuana with more THC, and its health effects.11
Most of the cannabis sold commercially in the United States is grown in hidden growing operations, with the majority grown in the Midwest or in the California area, which naturally has some of the world's best soil for growing crops. It is produced both in large-scale warehouses or other large establishments, such as mountain ranges and grown for limited distribution in small-scale, such as under houses or backyard projects. Imported cannabis usually originates in Canada or Mexico. Cannabis imported from Mexico is usually low quality. The packaging methods used are often crude resulting in compressed or "bricked" weed. The cannabis imported from British Columbia, in Canada, is sometimes of higher quality than cannabis grown in the United States (though cannabis from Northern California has a similar reputation). Again, due to flaws in packaging and shipping, cannabis that has traveled a long distance frequently is tainted with a strong smell of (lawn) grass, hay, or alfalfa.
International illicit trade in opium is relatively rare. Major smuggling organizations prefer to further refine opium into heroin before shipping to the consumer countries, since a given quantity of heroin is worth much more than an equivalent amount of opium. As such, heroin is more profitable, and much stronger, because heroin metabolizes directly into the main naturally-occurring psychoactive substance in opium-morphine.
Heroin is smuggled into the United States and Europe. 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 report by the DEA, Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey, have the purest street grade A heroin in the country). Heroin is a very easily smuggled drug because a small vial can contain hundreds of doses. Heroin is also widely (and usually illegally) used as a powerful and addictive drug that produces intense euphoria, which often disappears with increasing tolerance. Penalties for smuggling heroin and/or morphine are often harsh in most countries. Some countries will readily hand down a death sentence for the illegal smuggling of heroin or morphine, which are both, internationally, Schedule I drugs under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In various Asian countries, including Singapore and Malaysia, heroin and morphine are classed by themselves and penalties for their use, possession, and/or trafficking are more severe than all other drugs, including other opioids and cocaine.
The price per gram of heroin is typically 8 to 10 times that of cocaine on U.S. streets.12 Generally in Europe (except the transit countries Portugal and the Netherlands), a purported gram of street Heroin, which is usually between 0.7 and 0.8 grams, light to dark brown powder consisting of 5-10 percent, less commonly up to 20 percent, heroin base, is between 30 and 70 euros, which makes for an effective price of pure heroin per gram of between 300 and 2000 euros.
The purity of street cocaine in Europe is usually in the same range as it is for heroin, the price being between 50 and 100 euros per between 0.7 and 1.0 grams. This totals to a cocaine price range between 500 and 2000 euros.
In some areas of the United States, the trade of methamphetamine (meth) is rampant. Because of the ease in production and its addiction rate, methamphetamine is a favorite amongst many drug distributors.
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 2004. During this same period, methamphetamine lab incidents increased in midwestern States (Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio), and in Pennsylvania. In 2004, more lab incidents were reported in Illinois (926) than in California (673). 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.
Illegal trade of legal drugs
Legal drugs like tobacco can be the subject of smuggling and illegal trading if the price difference between the origin and the destination are high enough to make it profitable. With taxes on tobacco much higher in the United Kingdom than on mainland Europe this is a considerable problem in the UK.13
Some prescription drugs are also available by illegal means, eliminating the need to manufacture and process the drugs. (Prescription opioids for example, are sometimes much stronger than heroin found on the street. Example: The group of the fentanyl analogs.) They are sold either via stolen or partly divided prescriptions sold by medical practices and occasionally from Internet sale. However, it is much easier to control traffic in prescription drugs than in illegal drugs because the source is usually an originally legal enterprise and thus can often be readily found and neutralized.
The illegal trade of tobacco is motivated primarily by increasingly heavy taxation. When tobacco products such as name-brand cigarettes are traded illegally, the cost is as little as one third that of retail price due to the lack of taxes being applied as the product is sold from manufacturer to buyer to retailer. It has been reported that smuggling one truckload of cigarettes within the United States leads to a profit of 2 million U.S. dollars.14
The source of the illegally-traded tobacco is often the proceeds from other crimes, such as store and transportation robberies.
Sometimes, the illegal trade of tobacco is motivated by differences in taxes in two jurisdictions, including smuggling across international borders. Smuggling of tobacco from the U.S. into Canada has been problematic, and sometimes political where trans-national native communities are involved in the illegal trade.
The kingdom of Bhutan made the sale of tobacco illegal in December 2004, and since this time a flourishing black market in tobacco products has sprung up.15
Internet and controlled substances
The internet offers a method of obtaining drugs that may be legal in one jurisdiction, but illegal in another. Because policing internet traffic is more difficult than physical traffic, this is a loophole exploited by those looking to both buy and sell these drugs.
War on drugs
Drug control strategy
Present drug control efforts utilize several techniques to achieve their goals of eliminating recreational drug use:
- Disrupting the market for drugs
- Prevention efforts that rely on community activism, public information campaigns to educate the public on the potential dangers of drug use
- Law-enforcement efforts against current users, through medical screenings, workplace testing and Drug Courts<