Illicit drug trafficking

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Illegal drug trade
Illicit narcotics trade
Drug peddling

Recent international treaties define "illicit traffic" as the cultivation, manufacture or trafficking of drugs banned by such treaties. The term is, however, more generally used to describe the link between the demand for and the supply of illegal drugs, the distribution mechanism between production and the market. It is not just the street peddlers, but the vast hidden network that places the drugs on the street -- the fleets of planes and ships, the weapons, the criminal syndicates, the bribery and coercion that is a thriving multi-billion-dollar industry.

Illicit drug trafficking is sophisticated and complex in nature, involving a wide variety of drugs from many different sources throughout the world. Traffickers keep abreast of peak demand areas and the "drug of choice" in specific geographic locations, whilst maintaining the flow of narcotics around the world. This illicit traffic not only violates national drug laws and international conventions, but also involves many other criminal activities, including racketeering, conspiracy, bribery and corruption of public officials, tax evasion, banking law violations, illegal money transfers, import / export violations, crimes of violence and terrorism. This wide range of illegal activities presents an equally wide range of vulnerability to law enforcement action, but the challenge is to even the odds posed by logistics and the covert nature of the drug trade. Stopping one supply route by apprehending minor players, or even a "master criminal", may do little to interrupt the flow of drugs because the complicated network continues to be maintained by other members and rapidly can shift its operations to fill the gap.

The process which many countries have adopted for disrupting drug trafficking organizations include strengthening of legal tools such as judicial assistance, sentencing and appropriate penalties; forfeiture of assets gained illegally from the profits of the drug trade; extradition of persons accused of drug crimes; and denial of entry to persons convicted of drug offences. One step taken by the international community in this regard was the adoption of a United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which deals with those aspects of the problem not covered in other international agreements.

Illicit drug trafficking, moving hundreds of tonnes of drugs around the world, besides using organized crime distribution rings, also depends on younger tourists and poor people, of whom tens of thousands illegally transport drugs each year. The smuggling of illicit drugs is presumed to be aided by some official corruption since the quantities apprehended by the authorities, despite tighter control measures, remain relatively small. Drug trafficking is also greatly aided by the production and manufacture of legal drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, which soften social opinions about drug use. The newest aspect of the illegal drug trade is the increasing demand for synthetic drugs. The world's drug control agents encounter huge laboratories with state-of-the-art technology and a work-force of chemists who can manufacture synthetic drugs in vast quantities.


It has been estimated that in the 1990s the global traffic in illicit drugs netted as much as $500 billion annually. Coca, from which cocaine is processed, is grown in western South America, chiefly in Peru and Bolivia, which also grow cannabis or marijuana. Forty-five tons of Andean cocaine is trafficked to the USA, the ultimate destination for drugs from many countries and 10 tonnes go to Europe. Ganja or cannabis from Jamaica, Mexico and the Andes is trafficked to the USA by the ton.

Neglecting national variations in the basis of statistical estimates, figures from Interpol indicate that in 1990 there were approximately 472,000 cases of drug offences reported from 91 countries worldwide, namely 15.6 per 100,000 population; some 373,000 (namely 79%) were claimed to have been resolved.

Opium production is carried on in the Golden Triangle (border area of Burma, Laos and Thailand), in the Golden Crescent (parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan), Turkey and Mexico. Opium is bulky and has a characteristic odour; for this reason it is usually converted to heroin for trafficking internationally. The distribution of opiates is mainly carried out by organized crime, whereas the distribution of LSD and cannabis is mainly done by amateurs. The reason for this is the greater profit obtained from the illicit traffic of opiates and the higher court penalties involved which are of less risk to a well-organized network than to individuals. The initial cost of traffic in opiates may be higher, which would also preclude amateur participation. Monopolies tend to develop in the illicit opiate trade. Illicit heroin demand in USA (the largest known market) seems to be fully supplied.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST