Illegal Drug Trade: The Most Sinister Disease Of Modern Humanity – Analysis


Until recently, when people talked about the vices facing European society, they would first think of alcohol, nicotine, gambling or prostitution. Although the drug was mentioned both in schools and in public, there was a widespread opinion that it was some exotic vice that came from South America and was reserved for the financially savvy minority.

However, the reality is much darker. In recent times, drugs, or narcotics, have reached the leading place of vice in the world, including Europe. It is surely the most destructive vice. For all of us who are not involved in the use, cultivation or distribution of drugs, it sounds amazing how narcotics are present in the life of the community, especially the youth.

It is an open secret that occasional drug users and permanent drug addicts in medium-sized and larger European cities can easily find drugs every night during a night out. Illegal drug trade has become the most sinister disease of modern humanity, especially the disease of the young population. Drugs are a disease of society and individuals. It is more dangerous than the coronavirus, HIV, tumors, terrorist groups or any country. There are no borders for drugs, but they destroy societies from the inside and very efficiently.

Definition of narcotics

According to the definition of the Croatian Encyclopaedia, “narcotics are associated with narcotic drugs, substances of natural or synthetic origin with repeated use that cause psychological and physical dependence, such as narcotic analgesics: opium, morphine, codeine, heroin, methadone, and opioids – non-morphine and endogenous analgesics such as endorphins, enkephalin and dimorphin.”

According to their effect, narcotics are divided into three groups: 1) agents dangerous to human health that are not used in medicine (heroin, mescaline, psilocybin, cannabis, LSD, crack, ecstasy); 2) substances that are dangerous for human health and are used in medicine (cocaine, methadone, amphetamine, methamphetamine, etc.); 3) agents that can endanger human health and are used in medicine (diazepam, lorazepam, meprobamate, etc.). Narcotics are consumed by injection, oral route, smoking or snorting.

Illegal drug trade – a lucrative and widespread activity

Drug trade (or distribution) refers to the production, sale, transportation and illegal import and export of narcotics. Most countries prohibit drug trafficking. Penalties for drug possession often depend on the type of drug and its classification, the amount trafficked, where the drug is sold, and how it is distributed. If drugs are sold to minors, the penalties may be more severe than in other circumstances.

In some countries, the punishment can include several years in prison, flogging and even the death penalty (in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia). When this is taken into account, the emergence of drug trafficking is a direct result of the political decision to criminalize drugs. Estimates say that the global drug market in 2014 was between 426 and 652 billion dollars. Considering that the world GDP was 78 trillion US dollars that year, the illegal drug trade can be estimated at almost 1% of the total world trade. Illegal drug use is widespread globally and it is very difficult for authorities to reduce consumption rates.

Although according to the CIA, the illegal drug market in the United States is established as one of the most profitable in the world. Americans are the world’s largest consumers of cocaine, and are also among the largest consumers of other narcotics, such as heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 20 million Americans aged 12 or older were illicit drug users in 2004, meaning they used an illegal drug at least once in the previous month. Marijuana is the most popular drug among Americans. At the beginning of the 21st century, there was an increase in drug use in North America and Europe, especially the demand for marijuana and cocaine. As a result, international crime mafia organizations such as the Sinaloa and ‘Ndrangheta drug cartels have increased cooperation to facilitate the transatlantic drug trade. The use of another illicit drug, hashish, has also increased in Europe.

Narco routes

Regarding the Latin American route, Venezuela is a drug hub for drug exports originating in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and the rest of South America. Further, the route goes through Central America, Mexico and Caribbean countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to the USA and Europe. In West Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Togo, Ghana), drugs are imported from South America. In these West African countries, money earned from the drug trade is also “laundered”. The East African and South African routes are used to distribute drugs from Afghanistan to Europe and the USA. The routes are known as “southern routes” and mostly heroin is distributed.

In Asia, drug routes pass through South and Southeast Asia, and more recently through Central Asia and Russia, especially since the collapse of the USSR when the borders were loosened. Heroin is a drug that is massively exported from Asia to Europe and the USA. In Asia, Afghanistan is the main source of heroin along with the “Golden Triangle” area (as the CIA called it) – it refers to the outlying and mountainous parts of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. In addition to the West, drugs are also distributed from these countries to Australia and East Asia. The Iranian route exists but is less used because the Iranian government has waged a fierce war against drug cartels.

With the development of the Internet, online routes are getting stronger. In June 2021, Interpol revealed an operation in 92 countries that shut down 113,000 websites that sold counterfeit, illicit drugs and medical products. The operation resulted in the arrest of 227 people worldwide, the recovery of $23 million worth of pharmaceuticals and the seizure of approximately 9 million devices and drugs, including large quantities of fake Covid-19 tests and face masks. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2022 provides the latest and most alarming data on the prevalence of illegal drug trafficking and drug consumption around the world.

Cannabis – damages caused by legalization

Cultivation of cannabis (marijuana) remains a global phenomenon and much is produced in the country where it is consumed. Contrary to the announcements of liberal politicians, the legalization of cannabis in parts of the world such as North America has accelerated its daily consumption as well as negative health effects, especially among young people.

A related increase in the number of people with psychiatric disorders, a higher number of suicides and hospitalizations was recorded. At the same time, legalization increased tax revenues and generally reduced arrest rates for possession of cannabis.

Drastic increase in drug production

Unlike cannabis, cultivation of other drugs is region-specific and often concentrated in a very small number of countries. In recent years, just three countries (Afghanistan, Myanmar and Mexico) have grown more than 95% of global opium poppy cultivation. Three countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) are responsible for almost all of the world’s cultivation of the coca bush.

The UN report notes a record increase in cocaine production, the spread of synthetic drugs to new markets. Cocaine production was a record in 2020, rising 11% compared to 2019 to 1,982 tons. Around 284 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 worldwide used drugs in 2020, an increase of 26% compared to a decade earlier. This is a population slightly larger than the population of huge Indonesia (273 million) and significantly larger than Pakistan (223 million) and Brazil (212 million). Young people use more types of drugs, and the levels of use are growing mercilessly today.

The negative impact of drugs on health

Drug use has many negative health consequences. This can include a range of physical and mental health disorders, the most important of which are addiction, HIV infection, hepatitis-related liver disease, overdose and premature death. Of the 284 million people who used drugs in 2020, it is estimated that approximately 13.6% suffer from a drug addiction disorder. The total number of individuals estimated to suffer from addiction increased from about 27 million in 2010 to about 38.6 million in 2020. A UN report estimated that 11.2 million people worldwide used drugs intravenously. About half of this number were living with hepatitis C, 1.4 million were living with HIV, and 1.2 million were living with both.

In Africa and Latin America, people under the age of 35 represent the majority of people receiving treatment for drug addiction disorders. In many countries in Africa and South and Central America, the largest proportion of people receiving treatment for drug addiction disorders is primarily caused by cannabis. In Eastern and Southeastern Europe and in Central Asia, people are most often treated for opioid addiction disorders. In the US and Canada, overdose deaths are largely driven by the epidemic of non-medical use of fentanyl. A record number of more than 107,000 drug overdose deaths were recorded in 2021, up from nearly 92,000 in 2020.

Women remain in the minority of drug users globally, but tend to increase their rate of use and overtake men. Women now make up between 45 and 49 percent of amphetamine users and nonmedical users of pharmaceutical stimulants, pharmaceutical opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers. The difference in treatment is still large. Although every second person who uses amphetamines is female, women make up only one in five people who are treated for disorders caused by the use of amphetamines. Adequate addiction treatment is not available to many women. The 2022 UN drug report also highlights the wide range of roles women play in global drug networks, including growing coca, transporting small quantities of drugs, selling to consumers and smuggling into prisons.

Negative effect on the environment

Illegal drug markets can have environmental impacts at the national, provincial or household level. The carbon footprint of indoor cannabis is on average between 16 and 100 times that of outdoor hemp.

Other environmental impacts include deforestation associated with illegal coca cultivation, waste generated during synthetic drug production that can be 5 to 30 times the volume of the final product, and inadequate waste disposal that can directly affect soil, water, and air, and indirectly on organisms, animals and the food chain.

Record number of seizures

The largest quantities of drugs seized globally in 2020 were Indian hemp plants. Seizures of cocaine also increased, despite the coronavirus pandemic, to a record 1,424 tons in the same year. Almost 90% of the cocaine seized in the world in 2021 was smuggled by sea transport, especially in containers that prove to be God-given containers for drug cartels.

Seizure data show that the cocaine trade is expanding to other regions beyond the main drug markets of North America and Europe, with increased levels of trade in Africa and Asia. Methamphetamine trafficking continues to expand geographically: 117 countries reported methamphetamine seizures in 2016-2020 compared to 84 countries in the period 2006-2010. Meanwhile, the amount of methamphetamine seized increased fivefold between 2010 and 2020.

Global opium production rose 7% between 2020 and 2021 to 7,930 tonnes, mainly due to increased production in Afghanistan. However, the global area under opium poppy cultivation decreased by 16% in the same period. In the two largest methamphetamine markets, seizures are on the rise: 7% percent in North America, in Southeast Asia 30% during 2020 compared to 2019, which are record numbers in both regions. Southwest Asia also saw a record number of methamphetamine seizures: a 50% jump in 2020 compared to 2019.

War – paradise for drug business

Illicit drug trafficking usually flourishes in conflict situations and where the rule of law is weak. Smuggling and drug consumption usually prolongs war conflicts. Data from the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia suggest that conflict zones can act as a magnet for synthetic drug production.

Historically, warring parties have used drugs to finance conflicts and generate income. The 2022 UN drug report also reveals that conflicts can disrupt and change drug trafficking routes, as happened in the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Ukraine. There has been a dizzying increase in the number of discovered secret drug laboratories in Ukraine: an increase from 17 destroyed laboratories in 2019 to 79 in 2020. Of these 79, as many as 67 laboratories produced amphetamines.

Colombia and Afghanistan

The production and distribution of drugs in many cases geographically overlaps with war conflicts. The best examples include Colombia and Afghanistan, countries that have had protracted insurgencies and are together responsible for a significant share of the global production of heroin and cocaine.

In Colombia, the cultivation and trade of the coca leaf was central to decades of guerrilla warfare by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, when the FARC agreed to end its involvement in the drug business as part of a 2016 peace deal, coca cultivation was not reduced, in part because the agreement was not signed by all armed factions. There has also been an increase in coca cultivation and trade in some areas. Production reached record levels in 2017 as some farmers grew coca in order to receive government subsidies to stop growing it.

In Afghanistan, the illicit drug trade is closely linked to long-term instability, poverty and war. Opium has been used in the northern parts of the country since the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the country became a major global supplier. While the drug trade carries significant economic weight in all countries, nowhere is it more important than in Afghanistan, where it accounts for a significant share of the national economy. Revenue from Afghanistan’s illegal opiate economy is estimated to be between $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion in 2021, equivalent to as much as 12% of GDP. Farmers had long paid taxes to non-state actors, including the Taliban before their rise to power in August 2021. In May 2021, the Afghan government reported that the Taliban were also involved in the rapidly growing production of methamphetamine.

How to solve the problem?

The problem of growing and illegal drug trade is one of the main problems of humanity in the 21st century. There is no perfect formula for how to solve this problem, because if there was, it would have been largely solved already. What is certain is that drug cartels belong to organized crime organizations, and it is well known that organized crime exists because the state either protects it or tolerates it.

If the states really wanted to deal with drug cartels and the drug market, they would do so successfully in most cases. The problem is that in some countries of Latin America and Asia, the powerful structures of society are involved in this illegal activity and benefit from it. Undeniably, it suits some power centers around the planet that young people take drugs so that they are not aware against numerous social injustices. In any case, in order to reduce or eradicate drug consumption, it is important to engage the international community, national governments, civil society organizations and other stakeholders who must take urgent measures, including strengthening prevention, better treatment of addicts and a stronger fight against drug cartels and drug chains.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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