Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking is the illegal or unlawful production, selling, distribution, or transportation of illegal controlled substances. These include, but are not limited to, crack, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), and LSD. In 2017, Global Financial Integrity estimated the global drug trade to be valued at US$426 billion to US$652 billion. Due to the criminalization of controlled substances, drug trafficking has become a global issue and affects regions and countries differently. For example, some countries are source countries, whereas others are destination/market countries. This entry discusses the international drug trade before turning its attention to security and surveillance strategies for monitoring and controlling drug trafficking and associated privacy concerns.

Multinational Drug Trade

Worldwide, most suppliers and cultivators of controlled substances are from less developed countries in Southeast and Southwest Asia and Latin America. Some enter the international drug trade as a lucrative endeavor, whereas for others, it is a means of survival. For example, some politicians have been prosecuted for profiting from the illegal drug trade, whereas some peasant farmers in South America rely on the drug trade as a means of making a living after being driven out of traditional harvests like coffee in lieu of coca, which is used to manufacture cocaine.

Some less developed countries provide the raw materials for controlled substances based on their geographical areas. Many of the underdeveloped countries that supply raw materials or illegal controlled substances to more developed countries do so as a form of keeping their economies afloat. Some countries have been left behind by the global economy and resort to competing in the drug market. Bolivia, Malaysia, and Guyana are examples of countries whose economies are supported by drug trafficking, which keeps their economies afloat.

Drug Type, Production, and Distribution

Illegal drugs are typically found in three forms. First, they can be found as raw plants (e.g., cannabis). Second, they can be produced as refined plants (e.g., cocaine). Third, drugs can also be found in the form of synthetic controlled substances (e.g., ecstasy). The three most competitive countries in the drug trade are Colombia for coca, Mexico for cannabis, and Afghanistan for opium. One of the drugs that has been growing in popularity, especially among white American consumers, is methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine is a synthetic chemical drug made in laboratories from amphetamines and other chemicals. Unlike other drugs, methamphetamine provides producers independence from crops. It also allows manufacturers to make the drug in almost any location, but remote locations are typically used to avoid detection or suspicion by neighbors, as a chemical smell, fires, and explosions are common during the production of methamphetamine.

Cocaine continues to be primarily supplied by South American countries. It is trafficked through the Caribbean and Central American countries into the United States. It is also shipped to Europe. Different means are used to traffic cocaine, including boats, ships, and people. While marijuana is primarily supplied from Mexico to the United States, Asian traffickers (e.g., Vietnamese and Chinese) are the dominant suppliers in Canada. Heroin use is among the lowest relative to other types of drugs worldwide. Opium is primarily grown in Mexico, Southeast and Southwest Asia, and South America, with most opium being cultivated in Afghanistan.

Drug Trafficking, Crime, and the War on Drugs

The production, sale, and distribution of illegal substances are linked to criminal organizations and drug cartels. Such organizations have had disputes over ports and territories used to traffic drugs, with violence being used to claim and maintain their trafficking routes. In response to the violence associated with drug trafficking, some European countries have chosen to decriminalize some types of drugs. Other countries, such as the United States, continue to address the issue of drugs with crime control strategies. The United States’ War on Drugs is a controversial drug control strategy widely regarded as a failed policy. It has served not to eradicate illegal drug use but to exponentially increase the prison population. The focus of the War on Drugs has been to punish both users and sellers.

Drug trafficking laws and punishments vary by drug type, quantity, whom it is sold to, and the location of distribution. In some countries, such as Canada and the Netherlands, possession of small amounts of drugs is not punishable by prison. In the United States, though, drug possession is a criminal offense. Although some states have decriminalized marijuana, it is still a punishable offense at the federal level. In other countries, such as Indonesia, the possession of drugs can be punishable by death.

Security and Surveillance

New and innovative methods of surveillance have also created privacy concerns. For example, in the United States, an increase in domestic surveillance techniques have been called into question. It has been argued that such law enforcement surveillance activities violate the right to privacy as well as the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures afforded by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Federal law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have been criticized for their use of phone metadata collection, wiretaps, drones, and infrared scans without a search warrant in an effort to combat drug trafficking and other crimes. As the federal courts and the Supreme Court tackle cases dealing with surveillance methods and techniques, the expectation of privacy may become redefined.

Mercedes Valadez

See also Electronic Surveillance ; War on Drugs

Further Readings

Babor, T. F., et al. Drug Policy and the Public Good. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Chambliss, W. J. Power, Politics, and Crime. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001.

Kleiman, M. A. R., et al. Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.


National Drug Intelligence Center: https://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/index.htm

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: https://www.unodc.org

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration: https://www.dea.gov/index.shtml