Drug Trafficking Part I: A Global Pandemic

In my very first semester at Penn, I took a freshman seminar on International Development, FRSM106, taught by Dr. Richard Estes.  By the end of it, each of us in the class had written over 50 pages on a research topic of our choosing.  It was a pretty empowering experience, to say the least.

This is the first half of my work.  It examines drug trafficking on a global scale, focusing on marijuana, cocaine, and heroine.


The global drug pandemic is a socio-economic dilemma faced by third world nations, and yet, the costs for developed nations are clear.  In 1992, Canada spent 2.7% of its GDP on therapy for drug abusers (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Germany spent $120 per capita on tackling its drug problem in 1995 (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  1998 drug abuse cost the US society an estimated $143.4 billion (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).

Drug abuse bears other costs for developed nations as well, namely, national security costs (Bentham, 1998).  The 1980s saw the bonding between many terrorist and insurgent groups with drug producers as a way to fund their activities (Bentham, 1998).

Even with these clear incentives to eradicate the drug problem, there are many obstacles that discourage most countries from even beginning to fight.  Not only were there major setbacks against the drug problem in the 1970s and 1980s, but to this day there remains a tendency to exaggerate data, both past, present, and future (UNDCP, 2000).  After all, the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCP) estimated in 2000 that, “only about 10% of all countries have a reliable system for drug data collection.”  For example, African estimates of the number of cannabis users vary by nearly 30,000 (UNDCP, 2009).  Perhaps the largest obstacle of all is the simple fact that international problems require international cooperation.

Despite these complications, there exist several modern success stories that provide not only examples of how to successfully dispose of a county’s drug problem, but hope that such a feat can indeed be accomplished (UNDCP, 2000).  China is one such success story, which is today the world’s fastest growing economy, despite a long and nasty history with drugs, particularly opium.

What makes the drug problem so unique is not simply the fact that it ails both the developed and developing worlds, but that it reverses their traditional roles.  Poor nations sell materials to developed nations.  Assessing and fixing the demand side of the drug problem has its own difficulties: for one, data collection is much harder than on the supply side (UNDCP, 2000).  In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that a plan to solve the drug problem with balanced attention to the supply and demand sides was adopted (UNDCP, 2000).

This paper will examine cocaine, heroin, and cannabis.  Each drug will have its own section.  First, the drug will be defined.  Next, a historical analysis of that drug will span from 1980 to today.  Each drug’s historical analysis will first analyze its corresponding supply side and second examine that drug’s corresponding demand side.  Once all three drugs have been analyzed, the author will consider the global trafficking of drugs holistically to assess why the drug problem has lasted the ages.  This paper will finally illustrate previous and ongoing attempts to fix the global drug pandemic.


Preliminary researching was done on the internet to get a broad feel for global drug trafficking.  The next step was to find relevant books on drug trafficking.  The author borrowed many such books from the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania.  The internet was used utilized again towards the end of research to refine and update data.  The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention is relied upon heavily in this paper because of the comprehensive and effective ground research they conduct (UNDCP, 2000).  The 2000 World Drug Report in particular is cited frequently because it is the first comprehensive global assessment of its kind.  As such, it contains pertinent definitions, sets the standard for data collection, and contains the most information (the 2000 World Drug Report had to set the stage by going back over twenty years in the history of the drug problem.  Each ensuing yearly report only adds year’s worth of additional data).

The Drugs


Cocaine is a finished product derived from coca leaves (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  This finished product can take two forms.  One form is a white powder, which is “snorted, injected, or rubbed on the gums” (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2009).  The other is able to be smoked and takes the form of small lumps/rocks (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2009).  The form of the drug directly impacts the price.  Cocaine powder is considered the higher class drug, and is more expensive than crude cocaine rocks (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2000).

The effects on users of cocaine include an exaggerated sense of knowing, an increased desire to eat and sleep, and slight behavioral changes (Arnold, 2005).  Negative effects on the body include becoming highly addicted, “exhaustion, anxiety, weight loss, collapsed nasal passages, and heart failure” (Arnold, 2005).  Cocaine recently increased in popularity among users, and thus among distributors as well (Arnold, 2005).  However, coca leaf cultivation has been falling (UNDCP, 2009)

As stated, coca leaves are used to manufacture cocaine.  The manufacture of cocaine quadrupled during the 1980s (Bentham, 1998; UNDCP, 2000).  Between 1987 and 2000, the global area undergoing coca leaf cultivation slowly but surely declined (UNDCP, 2000).  Global coca leaf cultivation has always been concentrated in three countries: Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia (Guizado, 1994; Healy, 1994; Palmer, 1994; Thoumi, 1994; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).

Throughout the 1980s, Peru was responsible for 62% of the amount of coca leaves cultivated by all three Andean nations (Palmer, 1994; UNDCP, 2000).  Peru’s near-monopoly on coca leaf production ended as a result of two factors.  First, the early half of the 1990s saw the rise of a fungus which destroyed large swaths of Peruvian coca harvests (UNDCP, 2000).  To seal the deal, an ‘air corridor’ which transported coca leaves to Colombia from Peru was closed in the latter half of the 1990s (UNDCP, 2000).  While Peru’s inability to cultivate coca leaves certainly hindered the global total, Colombia made the most of Peru’s misfortune and stepped into the role of primary coca leaf producer for not only the three Andean countries, but the world (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  Charts 2 and 3 illustrate this shift, while Chart 1 contains data on illicit coca leaf cultivation since 1998.


image006     image008

To manufacture cocaine, source countries (those that cultivate coca leaves) must either traffic the coca leaves to factories other parts of the country or exported it to factories in other countries.  Not only are the Andes the most prolific coca leaf cultivators, they are also host to the most cocaine manufacturing.  Colombia is the largest manufacturer of cocaine (Arnold, 2000; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2009).  In 1987, Colombia produced around 500 tons of cocaine (UNDCP, 2000).  This number continued to rise throughout the remainder of the 1980s, outpacing Bolivia and Peru (UNDCP, 2000).  Not only was Colombia the leading producer of coca leaves and manufacturer of cocaine, but at the turn of the century Colombia was also the largest cocaine exporter (Arnold, 2005; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Yet, as is the case with coca leaf cultivation, manufacture of cocaine has most recently declined (UNDCP, 2009).

The simplest explanation for Colombia’s importance in the global cocaine trade is geography (Thoumi, 1994).  Colombia is closest to both the European and American markets, so Bolivia and Peru have a cost incentive to traffic their coca leaves and or cocaine via Colombia (Map 1).


When gauging demand for any drug, it is useful to consider seizures of that drug.  The frequency of seizures and the amount seized are both helpful indicators of demand (UNDCP, 2000).  More seizures and greater amount seized point towards high demand of that drug (UNDCP, 2000).

In 1997-1998, 97% of European cocaine seizures took place in Western Europe (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  Within Europe, Spain and the Netherlands comprised the areas with most demand for cocaine (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2000).  This is because they were the two main points of entry for cocaine, since Europe’s primary source for cocaine is the Caribbean, namely, Colombia (Arnold, 2005; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  While Eastern Europe’s number of seizures of cocaine grew at a rate of 77% p.a. from 1987-1997 (UNDCP, 2000), the fact remains that there is very little trafficking within Europe.  Once cocaine arrives at its entry point in Europe, it isn’t distributed very far (UNDCP, 2000).  That said, in 1999, the number of viable entry locations in Europe for cocaine expanded to include the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Belgium, France, and Switzerland (UNDCP, 2000).

In 1997-1998, North and South America combined to make 88% of global cocaine seizures (UNDCP, 2000).  In that same year, the United States was the world’s largest market of any single country for cocaine (Arnold, 2005; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000).  In the Americas, the countries which have exhibited the highest rates of growth in seizures of cocaine are all in South America and neighbor Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia (Andrade, 1994; Simón, 1994; UNDCP, 2000).  This indicates, to some extent, that the traditional markets of USA and Europe and tightening their borders, forcing the Andean countries to rely less on their traditional buyers and begin selling cocaine locally (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).


Heroin, like cocaine, is not a natural substance on earth.  Opium poppy is the raw crop cultivated to produce heroin (Arnold, 2005; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000, UNDCP, 2009).  Of the 250 species of poppy in the world, only Papaver somniferum is a commercial drug source (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Opium is produced during a ten to twelve day period as Papaver somniferum is ripening (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  The final form of heroin is supposed to be a white powder, but it is commonly found with a brownish tinge (Arnold, 2005).  Heroin “can be smoked, sniffed, injected, or inhaled” (Arnold, 2005).  Because all opiates effect the central nervous system (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005), users of heroin usually experience pleasure, warmth, and general happiness (Arnold, 2005).  Heroin is extremely addictive and can be lethal if a pure dose is taken (Arnold, 2005).  The fact that heroin is usually injected with a needle increases the risk of HIV/AIDS proliferation (Arnold, 2005).

Opium is most commonly cultivated from poppies in Asia (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP 2000; UNDCP; 2009).  Cultivation of opium poppies has traditionally taken place in South East Asia (Arnold, 2005; Bentham, 1994; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  The primary source countries (those which cultivate opium) in South East Asia are, in decreasing order, Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Vietnam, and Thailand (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  That said, South East Asia’s role in the global cultivation of opium has been decreasing (Chart 4).


Afghanistan has been quickly emerging as the world’s primary source-country for opium (Charts 5-7).






















Afghanistan’s role in the cultivation of opium more than doubled from 1990-1999 (Charts 5 and 6), and is dominant today (Chart 7).  Despite this jump, Afghanistan’s opium poppy cultivation in 2001 was one tenth that of its opium poppy cultivation in 2000 (UNDCP, 2009).  This dramatic drop had less to do with any international eradication efforts and more to do with the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan (UNDCP, 2001).  The Taliban’s formalized Muslim theocracy in Afghanistan was strongest during this period, and their decree to stop illicit cultivation of opium poppy was remarkably effective (UNODCP, 2001; UNDCP, 2009).  Unfortunately, this was short lived: the very next year illicit opium poppy cultivation returned to just under 2000 levels (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2009).  The upward trend continued relatively unhindered to 2007, with a sizeable dip in 2008 (Chart 8).


The most current data for global opium cultivation can be seen in Chart 9.


Using drug seizures to again indicate demand, Asia is the market with the highest demand in the world (UNDOCP, 2000).  Over 70% of global seizures in 2000 were made in Asia, while 23% were in Europe and 3% in the Americas (UNDCP, 2000).  It is important to note that while this frequency of seizures in Asia wasn’t unusual, the amount of heroin seized in Asia more than doubled from 1988-1998.  During this time period, Iran emerged as a primary market for heroin: Iran’s share in global seizures of heroin rose from 9% in 1988 to 42% in 1998, and doubled by 1999 (UNDCP, 2000).  By 1998, Turkey was a major player in opiate seizures, comprising about 20% of the global total (UNDCP, 2000).  In that same year, China accounted for 12% of all heroin seized (UNDCP, 2000).  On a positive note, 1990-2000 saw India’s seizures of heroin decline by more than 60% (UNDCP, 2000).

These Asian countries are, however, the new kids on the block in demand terms.  In the late 1980s, Thailand accounted for 60% of all seizures of opiates in South East Asia (Bentham, 1994; UNDCP, 2000).  As these newer countries rose to prominence in the late 1990s, Thailand’s share was just 5% (UNDCP, 2000).

In 1999, poor weather conditions in South East Asia ravaged opium cultivation and production (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2000).  Prior to this point, South East Asia was the primary source for the United States market.  But the US’s demand didn’t diminish just because of bad weather half way across the globe.  Right as Colombia finished picking up the pieces in the cocaine trade left by Peru, Colombia also took advantage of the bad weather in Asia and stepped into the role of the primary source country for the USA’s heroin (Bentham, 1994; UNDCP, 2000).  This is especially true for the market of the East Coast of the US, which consumes the most heroin of all the other regions (UNDCP, 2000).  Over 60% of all heroin seized between 1995 and 1999 in the US originated from Latin America (UNDCP, 2000).


Unlike cocaine and heroin, cannabis is a plant that grows naturally on Earth (Arnold, 2005; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Cannabis is used in two forms: marijuana – a leaf/plant – and hashish – the resin from that plant (Arnold, 2005; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  The active ingredient in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Cannabis is “usually smoked in a joint” (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Not only is cannabis a sedative, but it is common for users to experience symptoms with psychoactive properties (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug on earth (Arnold, 2005; Bentham, 1998; Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).

Cannabis’ pervasity is readily explained by the fact that it is a naturally growing plant.  This fact also accounts for the immense difficulty in gathering production data.  In 2000, Morocco was the world’s primary source country for cannabis resin or, hashish, while Colombia and Mexico were the primary source countries of the herb or, marijuana (Arnold, 2005; UNDCP, 2000).  But while those countries do indeed play vital roles in the cannabis trade, Russia and Kazakhstan are home to the largest areas under wild growth of cannabis plant (UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  Cannabis herb is the most frequently seized illicit drug (UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).

The amount of cannabis herb seized is also the greatest of any illicit drug (UNDCP, 2000).  Demand for cannabis herb is concentrated in the Americas and Africa, while cannabis resin is demanded mostly in Europe, North Africa, and South West Asia (Bentham, 1994; UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  The 1980s saw a decline in marijuana demand from the American drug market (UNDCP, 2000).  This, coupled with strong cannabis eradication efforts in Latin America, caused a downward trend in global cannabis production in the 1980s (UNDCP, 2000).  However, European demand for marijuana spiked in the first half of the 1990s, revitalizing the global cannabis trade (UNDCP, 2000).  In 1998, 72% of global seizures of cannabis occurred in the Americas, of which over 60% were in North America (UNDCP, 2000).  In 1999, over half of the seizures made by the United States were made along the US/Mexican border (UNDCP, 2000).

Why Does Drug Trafficking Persist?

Two answers to this question are Capitalism and Radicalism.  While intrinsically oxymoronic, the combination of these two paradigms has caused the global drug problem to survive to this day.  Let us first examine the components of Radicalism which fuel the drug trade.  After analyzing Radical theories we will turn our attention to Capitalism’s hand in the drug pandemic.


The two Radical theories at play in the context of globally trafficked drugs are Marxism and the Dependency Theory.  Marxism is hinged on the Dependency Theory.  In essence, Marxism argues that we live in a constant state of conflict (either open or suppressed), in which one party or group dominates another (Marx & Engels, 1848).  Accordingly, the Dependency Theory carries with it the assumption that society is structurally based (Marx & Engels, 1848).  A structurally based society is one which has clearly defined classes or groups (e.g. ethnicities, varying degrees of wealth, different amounts of political power, etc).  These classes are created out of the simple fact that there are those of have, and those who have not.  But while “the survival of the master class rests on the work of the serving class” (Bucholz, 2007), the serving class wouldn’t have survive without the master class because the master class holds the means of production and, as such, provide work (Marx & Engels, 1848).

To relate this back to the world of drug trafficking, there are indeed clearly defined sets of people, those with and those without.  There are producers of the drugs (i.e. cultivators of coca leaves, opium poppy, and cannabis), manufacturers, distributors, and abusers.  Parts of this societal structure can be cohesive (both manufacturers and distributors have a mutual interest to see addicts continue to abuse), while others are often openly opposed (distributors fight each other for territory and intimidate any drug abusers who think about quitting the drug).

Another facet of Marxism is materialism.  The disparity among the classes places false importance on items not vital for our survival (Marx & Engels, 1848).  Doing cocaine or heroin or marijuana is not a biological necessity for humans, and thus, could be considered a materialistic view on the part of the drug abusers.  Admittedly, harder drugs like cocaine and heroin chemically alter the brain (Arnold, 2005), so the need to use isn’t entirely false.

Indeed, Marx would consider the relationship between drug manufacturers/distributors and abusers the perfect metaphor to describe the relationship between the proletariat (working class) and the bourgeois (ruling class/withholders of the means of production).  Manufacturers and distributors (bourgeois) control the means of production (provide work) and sell drugs (give wages), knowing full well that the abusers (proletariat) will need to come back for more.


There are two overarching Capitalist theories at play in the sphere of drug trafficking.  One is the Rational Man Argument, put forward by Adam Smith in his 1776 book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  The second is the principle of hedonism, which originates from ancient Greece.

First, the Rational Man Argument asserts that man acts rationally in pursuit of what he perceives to be in his self-interest (Smith, 1776).  The key word in that assertion is ‘rationally’.  Each man’s rationale differs from that of his neighbor.  The case of drug abuse clearly illustrates just how varied the interpretation of rational can be.  Those not dependant on drugs can list, in a logical manner, the hindrances that accompany drug abuse.  To a drug abuser’s brain, while the arguments may have merit as individual pieces of evidence, at the end of the day their most rational decision is to continue using drugs.  For one, the repercussions from their distributor should they stop abusing are not in their self interest.  Further, as stated above, hard drugs chemically alter the brain to prioritize abuse of that drug.

Hedonism is a philosophy that man is guided simultaneously by his obsession with pleasure and the avoidance of pain.  When drug abusers become addicted, drug abuse becomes their most pleasurable sensation in life.  In the face of negative after-effects, they ‘rationally perceive’ that the best way to avoid that pain is to return to that pleasure state and use again.  In a particularly evil twist of fate, the only way drug abusers can feel the same amount of pleasure as they did during their first experience with it is to take more of the drug (Arnold, 2005).  This pattern continues with each consecutive use.

Capitalist theory also applies economically to drug trafficking.  Where demand for a commodity and scarcity of resources to create that commodity intersect, there will be high prices (Smith, 1776).  Seeing as a large amount of drug abuser’s brains are altered to demand drugs above all else, it goes without saying that the world of drug trafficking always includes a very high demand for drugs (Payan, 2006).  This guaranteed high demand allows producers and manufacturers (who control the means of productions) to ensure scarcity and drive prices even higher (Payan, 2006).  Basic human greed pushes producers, manufacturers, and distributors to squeeze as much as possible out of abusers.  As the market expands by accumulating more addicts on their leash, producers, manufacturers, and distributors increase profits.

What’s Being Done to Help?

As this paper has demonstrated, there are two clear sides to the global drug pandemic: supply and demand.  Source countries are responsible for global supply of the drug they are producing, while demand and markets can be found almost anywhere.  Because cultivation of illicit crops is clearly visible (i.e. fields of opium poppy) and manufacture of illicit drugs is highly centralized (i.e. cocaine factories), there has been a strong tendency to concentrate efforts to eradicate the drug problem on strictly the supply side.  However, these efforts are usually called forth by already developed nations.  It isn’t a coincidence that the supply side of the global drug pandemic is comprised almost entirely of non-developed or developing countries.  The production of illicit drugs is often considered a symptom of broader structural problems within a country (UNDCP, 2000).  Illicit drug cultivation and production are just one of myriad problems countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia face every day.  Agreeing on supply-side oriented plans is no more than developed nations pointing the finger of blame at the third world without doing anything themselves.

What the first world conveniently forgets is that they provide the largest markets for those same drugs.  As we’ve established, producers, manufacturers, and distributors are responsive to market forces, and are meeting a demand with a supply.  Without that demand, creating a supply of drugs would cease to be profitable.

In 1988, 43 members of the United Nations signed a Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNCDP, 2000).  This was the third major international drug control treaty (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  The major provisions of this convention included controlling shipments of raw drug materials and a renewed commitment to eradicate or reduce cultivation and production (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005; UNDCP, 2000).  These goals were entirely supply-oriented.  The only reference to dealing with the demand side of the drug problem was the loose legal framework created by the convention which was intended to provide for international collaboration to fight the drug problem (Roman, Ahn-Redding, & Simon, 2005).  This was certainly a step in the right direction.  The global drug pandemic is just that: global.  It requires global solutions.

At long last, in June of 1998, 185 states attended a Special Session on the international drug problem (UNDCP, 2000; UNDCP, 2009).  All participants signed an agreement to not only develop their own national strategies by 2003, but also cut consumption in half and eliminate production by 2008 (UNDCP, 2000).  The first two of these agreements deal with the demand side of the drug problem.  Latin American states in particular were inspired to see that they weren’t in this fight alone (UNDCP, 2000).  Bolivia and Peru’s substantive efforts and results improved their international standing, resulting in an increase in direct foreign investment (UNDCP, 2000).  This recent and tangible example promotes fighting the drug problem by advertising monetary and political incentives on the global stage.  As far as developed countries were concerned, their main short-term task was to reduce addiction (UNDCP, 2000).  Of course, the cheapest tactic will be prevention.  To further combat demand, a Global Assessment Program was established to target the youth specifically.  Not only were the youth exposed to the costs and consequences of drug abuse (e.g. the spread of HIV/AIDS), but the Global Assessment Program also set up an international forum to hear what they youth have to say about drugs (UNDCP, 2000).

When it comes to tactics on the supply side, alternative development is the best long-term solution (UNDCP, 2000).  A form of alternative development includes using opium poppy to manufacture morphine instead of heroin.  This strategy does in fact work.  Between 1999 and 2000, India’s seizures of heroin fell by over 50% (UNDCP, 2000).  Today, India is the world’s largest producer of medical morphine (UNDCP, 2000).  Thanks to modern technology, alternative development plans can be monitored via satellites to ensure that the illicit crops don’t simply pop up elsewhere.

As alternative development is being implemented, it is necessary to increase farmer’s access to markets.  Producers and manufacturers make illicit crop cultivation easy for farmers by purchasing illicit crops right at their gates.  In mountainous regions like Afghanistan, this is a huge incentive.  Improvements in infrastructure in developing countries will take this huge incentive away from drug producers and manufacturers.


Talk of infrastructural improvements leads us back to the crux of the supply side of the issue: these developing countries have so much work to do.  To use a medical analogy, trying to solely fix the drug problem is like fixing a symptom without curing the disease.  However, history has proven that making substantial gains in combating the drug pandemic raise a country’s legitimacy (e.g. China and India), increases its international funding (e.g. Peru and Bolivia), and pushes it that much closer to removing their other ailments (e.g. poverty).  A rising tide lifts all ships: there’s no reason that the fight against drugs can’t be at the forefront of any developing country’s march towards the first world.