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International Drug Trafficking and Its Legal Status Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 11th, 2020


International drug trafficking is defined as an illicit trade of narcotics that involves the cultivation, production, distribution, and sale of various substances which are prohibited by law (United Nations n.d.). It is considered a transnational threat and dangerous to the health and social fabric of society. The global drug trade is so large that similar to any industry it can be measured through economic terms of distribution, sales, and revenue.

Since the industry operates on the black market as an illegal enterprise, it is difficult to determine exact figures. However, many governments and organizations rely upon analyzing the demand for narcotics. Since drug enterprises receive revenue solely from sales based on demand (which is always exceeded), this method provides an estimation for the scale of the global narcotics trade. The UN estimates the illicit drug market to be worth $320 billion or 0.9% of the world’s GDP (Organization of American States 2013).

Organized crime and illegal terrorist groups are directly linked to the global drug trade. They have developed a sophisticated system of drug production, transportation, distribution, and sale. The unregulated and illicit market serves as a method to finance their operations. The income is used to expand production, intimidate or influence politicians, and invest in ideology. The drug-related activity involves at least 35% of organized crime groups (UNODC 2017c). The large-scale of the global drug trade has grown primarily due to the levels of financing and expansion that organized crime has invested in the industry.

The globalization of the 21st-century world economy has created a widespread distribution network for drug trafficking. To this point in history, drugs have been a relevant societal concern, causing socio-economic decay and numerous population health issues. Most countries focused on combatting the epidemic domestically. With time, the industry grew to the point of becoming a national security concern. Governments and international organizations began to focus efforts on protecting borders and using geopolitical conflicts as a method to combat drug trafficking. The drug trade is considered a major issue for social stability around the world.

However, some nation-states benefit tremendously from the industry as the countries serve as centers of drug production. The resulting cash flow contributes to the country’s economy, usually suffering from widespread poverty (Jenner 2011). The drug trade has an impact on legal businesses and the international economy. Large sums of money are laundered and integrated into the global financial system, having no legitimate origin or the support of proper business practices.

Also, the money is used for purposes of corruption that destabilize national and financial institutions. Businesses become involved as their distribution networks are utilized for drug trafficking. Furthermore, money laundering schemes can create false market parameters that impact competition and revenues (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction 2016). Modern financial controls are negligent in controlling the finances associated with the international drug trade.

Potent and addictive drugs (particularly opiates) were historically present as far as the 17th century. In the 19th century, nations began to enact regulations after seeing societal effects. At one point, China took an isolationist position on trade with Europe as the British sought to legalize the opium trade. The British Pharmacy Act of 1868 is the first legislation seeking to regulate drug usage and commerce in a Western country (Musto n.d.).

Drug-related legislation always has a standard formula to encompass any related activity such as cultivation, production, transportation, sale, or usage of the substances. However, some countries have taken a more liberal approach and choose to simply prohibit the drugs but do not classify them as a criminal act but rather as a health issue. All known national and international jurisdictions have laws regarding the prohibition of drugs. However, there is a difference in enforcement and punishment of drug-related charges in various countries

Australia criminalizes the transport, possession, usage, and supply of drugs, including cannabis. The country follows the National Drug Strategy which attempts to balance supply-demand and harm reduction strategies. Australia and several other nations have implemented a policy to limit consequences for regular drug users in possession of lesser amounts of narcotics and focused on social rehabilitation (State Library 2016).

Although drug trafficking is illegal internationally, some European nations chose to decriminalize individual narcotic possession. Cannabis has been fully legalized in Uruguay. However, all jurisdictions have no tolerance for the trafficking of hard drugs on a large-scale (Graham, 2014). There are major international drug control treaties that all nations have signed. The most recent is the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. It focuses on establishing methods to combat trafficking and related activities (such as violent crime and money laundering) around the world through international cooperation. This helps to resolve jurisdictional issues such as extradition (UNODC 2017b). Australia is directly involved in these multilateral conventions.

Policing and Sanction

As a major international issue, a significant amount of resources is aimed at policing the drug trade. The UN police and INTERPOL work together with regional law enforcement to disrupt and dismantle networks used for trafficking. Assessments of the local police are made to establish competent mechanisms that deal with drug-related criminal activities (UNPOL n.d.). International and national jurisdictions have policies similar to the Kingpin Act in the US which directly applies sanctions to large narcotics traffickers and their organizations. This including limiting access to the property and financial activity (OFAC 2014).

Furthermore, countries spend a significant amount of money on drug control agencies, specifically to fund treatment programs and law enforcement. Australia spends approximately $1.7 billion (UNSW 2013). Meanwhile, the US which is heavily involved in international drug control spends $27 billion annually (Office of National Drug Control Policy 2017).

Policy Proposal

There are a variety of factors that policy should target to combat the global narcotics trade. Terrorists and criminal organizations depend on drug trafficking as a major source of income. An effective approach to limit production is to target the flow of revenue to these enterprises. The core effort should be focused on cross-border collaboration to prevent supply-chain and distribution networks to restrict illicit money laundering, corruption, and investments.

Financial institutions can collaborate with law enforcement agencies to identify suspicious accounts, persons of interest, and information that can be traced. Further, money and product flows are physically controlled thorough patrol of the main trafficking routes and hubs or via online marketplaces specializing in the drug trade (UNODC 2017a). Policy and implementation resources should be directed at large-scale production and distribution of narcotics.

The three broad components of the historic drug control policy are eradication, interdiction, and alternative development. However, most programs and operations rarely encompass all three aspects, instead of focusing on controlling supply through eradication in hopes of raising costs for producers and consumers of drugs to the point where demand falls. Overall, such an approach failed in the long-term perspective because it did not focus on the core problem which causes the drug epidemic (Fukumi 2016).

The policy should emphasize sustainable development in local communities and internationally to direct resources towards socio-economic development. International cooperation is specifically effective in aiding countries that have limited resources or serve as central points for drug production. The most effective drug control strategy is based on long-term and large-scale sustainable development.

Reference List

European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction 2016, The impact of drug markets on legal business and the economy. Web.

Fukumi, S 2016, Cocaine trafficking in Latin America, Routledge, Abingdon.

Graham, G 2014, ‘’, The Telegraph. Web.

Jenner, M 2011, ‘International drug trafficking: a global problem with a domestic solution’, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 901-927. Web.

Musto, D n.d., . Web.

OFAC 2014, Narcotics sanction program. Web.

Office of National Drug Control Policy 2017, . Web.

Organization of American States 2013, . Web.

State Library 2016, History of Drug Laws. Web.

United Nations n.d., . Web.

UNODC 2017a, . Web.

UNODC 2017b, . Web.

UNODC 2017c, . Web.

UNPOL n.d., Serious and organized crime. Web.

UNSW 2013, Australian government spending on drugs (drug budgets). Web.

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