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Panamanian motor vessel Gatun during the largest cocaine bust in United States Coast Guard history (20 tons) off the Coast of Panama

The illegal drug trade is a global black market consisting of the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of illegal drugs. While some drugs are legal to possess and sell, in most jurisdictions laws prohibit the trade of certain types of drug.

The illegal drug trade operates similarly to other underground markets. Various drug cartels specialize in the separate processes along the supply chain, often localized to maximize production efficiency. Depending on the profitability of each layer, cartels may vary in size, consistency, and organization. The chain ranges from low-level street dealers who may be individual drug users themselves, through ethnicity-based street gangs and contractor-like middlemen, up to multinational empires that rival governments in size.

Illegal drugs may be grown in wilderness areas, on farms, produced in indoor or outdoor residential gardens or indoor hydroponic grow-ops, or manufactured in drug labs located anywhere from a residential basement to an abandoned facility. The common characteristic binding these production locations is that they are discrete to avoid detection, and thus they may be located in any ordinary setting without raising notice. Much illegal drug cultivation and manufacture takes place in developing nations, although production also occurs in the developed world.

In locales where the drug trade is illegal, police departments as well as courts and prisons may expend significant resources in pursuing drug-related crime. Additionally, through the influence of a number of black market players, corruption is a problem, especially in poorer societies.

Consumption of illegal drugs is widespread globally. While consumers avoid taxation by buying on the black market, the high costs involved in protecting trade routes from law enforcement lead to vastly inflated prices.

Additionally, various laws criminalize certain kinds of trade of drugs that are otherwise legal (for example, untaxed cigarettes). In these cases, the drugs are often manufactured and partially distributed by the normal legal channels, and diverted at some point into illegal channels.

Finally, many governments restrict the production and sale of large classes of drugs through prescription systems.


In jurisdictions where legislation restricts or prohibits the possession or sale of drugs, most commonly psychoactive drugs, potential drug buyers and sellers are unable to transact in the open. Only illegal drug trade remains an option, and when such trade occurs a black market is created.

Since the drug transaction itself is illegal, any participants in the trade are by definition criminal. With no significant additional cost to being convicted of drug charges, previous convicts hold a competitive advantage in providing illegal drug products.


1921 photograph of Chinese Maritime Officers with 300lbs of smuggled morphine shipped in cylinders of soda sulphate from Japan.

See also: First Opium War and Second Opium War

The trade of drugs has existed for as long as the drugs themselves have existed. However, the trade of drugs was fully legal until the introduction of drug prohibition. The history of the illegal drug trade is thus closely tied to the history of drug prohibition.

In the First Opium War, Great Britain attempted to force China to allow British merchants to trade in opium with the general population of China. Although illegal by imperial decree, smoking opium was common in the 1800s and was believed to cure many health problems.

Illegal trade of legal drugs[]

Legal drugs 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, due to high taxes or other restrictions in the destination locale. If a large price difference exists without legal restrictions, then legal trade of drugs can take place between the two markets.

Alcohol and tobacco[]

Main article: Alcohol

With taxes on tobacco much higher in the United Kingdom than on mainland Europe there exists a sizable untaxed cigarette market in the UK. [1] Likewise in other regions where high-tax and low- or no-tax societies exist nearby, such as Canada and parts of the United States as well as various Indian reservations. It is also illegal to sell or give tobacco or alcohol to minors in some of these areas, which is considered smuggling throughout most MEDCountries.

Prescription drugs[]

Some prescription drugs are also available by illegal means, eliminating the need to manufacture and process the drugs. For example, prescription opioids such as the group of the fentanyl analogues are much stronger than heroin found on the street. They are sourced either from stolen or partly divided prescriptions sold by medical practices and occasionally from Internet sale. Benzodiazepines, in particular temazepam and flunitrazepam, are also frequently diverted to the black market through forged prescriptions, pharmacy robberies and doctor shopping. In Malaysia and Singapore, there occurs similar diversion of nimetazepam. However, it is much easier to control traffic in prescription drugs than in banned drugs because the manufacturer is usually an originally legal enterprise and thus the leak can often be readily found and countered. There might also be an advantage in reduced risk of contaminated or poor to outright toxic produce common with illegal clandestine laboratory production.

Internet and controlled substances[]

"No Prescription Websites" (NPWs) offer to sell controlled substances without a valid prescription. NPWs were first recognized by the U.S. Justice Department in 1999, indicating that such sites had been operating at least through the late 1990s. NPWs enable dealers and users to complete transactions without direct contact, meanwhile many NPWs accept credit cards, others only accept cash thereby further reducing any paper trail. Many NPWs are hosted in countries in which specific categories of controlled substances are locally legal (e.g. prescription opioids in Mexico), but because of the global nature of the internet, NPWs are able to do (mostly illegal) business with customers around the globe. In addition to prescription opioids, stimulants, and sedatives, steroids are often widely distributed. To date, no websites have been found selling illegal drugs like heroin, or illegal amphetamine derivatives. Some police have uncovered several instances of drug vendors or drug rings using Craigslist personal ads to solicit drug business using code words and phrases. All other categories of drugs are available online.

2004 saw the conclusion of Operation Web Tryp, focusing on companies selling so-called research chemicals, legal psychedelic phenethylamines and tryptamines on the Internet.

Foreign intervention[]

Some nations that criminalize drug trade have a policy of interfering heavily with foreign states. In 1989, the United States intervened in Panama with the goal of disrupting the drug trade coming from Panama. The Indian government has several covert operations in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent to keep a track of various drug dealers.

Size of illegal drug trade[]

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 US$322 - $400[2] billion based on retail prices and taking seizures and other losses into account.

Violent resolutions[]

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. In the late 1990s in the United States, the FBI estimates that 5% of murders were drug-related.[3]

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.

Minors and the illegal drug trade[]

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 12 months preceding the survey. [1] 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 38.7% across state CDC surveys (median: 26.1%) and from 20.3% to 40.0% across local surveys (median: 29.4%). [2]

Despite over $7 billion spent annually towards arresting [3] 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. [4]

Trade of specific drugs[]

The price per gram of heroin is typically 8 to 10 times that of cocaine on US streets.[5] 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%, less commonly up to 20%, 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.

Anabolic steroids[]

Main article: Anabolic steroids

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, anabolic steroids are relatively easy to smuggle into the United States. Once there, they are often sold at gyms and competitions as well as through mail operations.


A box of Cannabis

Main article: Cannabis (drug)

In World Drug report 2006 UNODC focused on The New cannabis, distribution of stronger marijuana with more THC and its health effects.[4]

When cannabis is not grown in large-scale "grow ops" warehouses or other large establishments such as mountain ranges or grown for limited distribution in small-scale such as under houses or backyard projects, it is usually imported from Canada, Mexico or farther south {citation}. Most of the cannabis sold commercially in the U.S. is grown in hidden grow 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. Much of the cannabis in the United States is imported from Mexico, however this cannabis is usually low quality sometimes referred to as brown bud, regs, regular, schwag, mersh, or dirt weed. The packaging methods used are often crude resulting in compressed or "bricked" weed. The cannabis imported from British Columbia in Canada, known as BC bud, is usually of higher quality than most cannabis grown in the United States (though cannabis from Northern California has a similar reputation) and is highly sought after. Around 40% of US marijuana is grown inside of the country. More and more cannabis is being grown in United States or transported from Canada while less cannabis comes from the Mexican border due to its low quality.

Psilocybin mushrooms[]

Psilocybe mushrooms grow naturally in most climates, thus this drug market is financially less lucrative, even though there is no doubt a certain kind of commercial growing of the Psilocybe mushrooms, half-legally in the Netherlands and illegally from different stages of maturity/manufacture of chewable dried mushroom tissue. Psychonauts will often grow these mushrooms or pick them for themselves as they are common to find in many places of the world.


Main article: Alcoholic beverage

In some areas of the world, particularly in and around the Arabian peninsula, the trade of alcohol is strictly prohibited. For example, Pakistan bans the trade because of its large Muslim population. Similarly, Saudi Arabia forbids the importation of alcohol into its kingdom, however, alcohol is smuggled in very high quantities. Fugitive Cassandra Dickerson was a noted crminal smuggler responsible for 90% of the alcohol being smuggled into Saudi Arabia in 2003.[6] In other areas it is considered like any other beverage, and is legal. In still other areas, there is an age limit for consumers, and a license is necessary to sell alcohol.

Pure alcohol or liquids with high alcohol content over a certain percentage or proof, calculated by volume or weight, are also banned in many countries. In Russia, for example, rubbing alcohol is a scheduled drug on par with heroin, and theoretically has the same legal penalties.


Main article: Tobacco

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. [7]

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 US 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, [8] and since this time a flourishing black market in tobacco products has sprung up. In 2006, tobacco and betel nut were the most commonly seized illicit drugs in Bhutan. [9]


Main article: Opium

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.


Main article: Heroin

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, quarter-sized vial can contain hundreds of doses[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Heroin is also widely (and usually illegally) used as a powerful and addictive drug that produces intense euphoria, which often disappears with increasing tolerance. This 'rush' comes from its high lipid solubility provided by the two acetyl groups, resulting in a very rapid penetration of the blood-brain barrier after use. Once in the blood stream, heroin is rapidly converted to morphine. The morphine then binds to the opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, causing the subjective effects. Heroin and morphine can be taken or administered in a number of ways, including snorting and injection. They may also be smoked by inhaling the vapors produced when heated from below (known as "chasing the dragon"). Penalities 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 penalities for their use, possession, and/or trafficking are more severe than all other drugs, including other opioids and cocaine.

Methamphetamine (Meth)[]

Main article: Methamphetamine

In some areas of the United States, the trade of methamphetamine 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

Methamphetamine is sometimes used in an injectable form, placing users and their partners at risk for transmission of HIV and hepatitis C[How to reference and link to summary or text].

U.S. Government involvement[]

The U.S. federal government is a vocal opponent of the drug industry and it has set the fact of international standards [How to reference and link to summary or text] regarding the legality and illegality of different drugs. State laws vary greatly and in some cases defy 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. [10] [11] [12]

Oliver North and Barry Seal 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 [13] 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".

Highly decorated US military Special Forces veteran, Colonel Bo Gritz (retired) has accused the USA of collaborating with and supporting Manuel Noriega in his drug trafficking operations. In his book Called To Serve, Gritz details his role as a key US Government employee tasked with protecting the USA's relationship with Noriega.

Counter to its official goals, the US has been known to attempt to suppress research on drug usage. 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 recuperated[5]. Available are profiles of cocaine use in 20 countries.


Drug smuggling was the topic of:


  • The French Connection (1971)
  • Live and Let Die (1973)
  • Midnight Express (1978)
  • Scarface (1983)
  • License to Kill (1989)
  • New Jack City (1991)
  • Rush (1991)
  • Deep Cover (1992)
  • Clear and Present Danger (1994)
  • Clockers (1995)
  • Trainspotting (1996)
  • Brokedown Palace (1999)
  • Traffic (2000)
  • Requiem for a Dream (2000)
  • Blow (2001)
  • 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
  • Bad Boys II (2003)
  • A Man Apart (2003)
  • Maria Full of Grace (2004)
  • Layer Cake (2004)
  • Miami Vice (2006)
  • Cocaine Cowboys (2006)
  • Protégé (2007)
  • Alpha Dog (2007)


  • Trainspotting (1993)
  • The Power of the Dog (2005)

See also[]


External links[]