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In an organic sense, drugs are chemicals. When people ingest drugs, they pass through their body to their brain where they interfere with the neurotransmitters that transfer signals across synapses changing the messages that the brain sends to the body and thereby affecting the way the body works. In strictly economic terms, however, drugs are a commodity. That is, they are a product that is exchanged between people. Some drugs in some nations are socially and legally considered to have value for one reason or another and are deemed acceptable for use by some or all people under some or all circumstances. These are produced, distributed, and consumed under authority of law and sanctioned by less formal social norms for commercial purposes and personal use by approved individuals in approved circumstances. Others drugs are not acceptable for any purpose or any person under any circumstance. Today and for some time now, the production, distribution, and consumption of those drugs that are not authorized by law or sanctioned by social norms have been considered a serious problem for individuals, communities, and nations. There are very real public health concerns about drugs, all drugs but in particular illicit drugs or licit drugs used in illicit ways, and what they do to individuals and their minds and bodies. And there are very real public safety concerns about the impact of drugs on people and their communities and nations, especially with regard to the consequences of the commercial transactions involving those drugs that are not recognized by law. So it is not surprising that for the last century or so, there has been considerable attention among social scientists and public policymakers to questions and concerns about the trafficking and marketing of illicit drugs and their relationship to crime and violence.
Understanding Drug Trafficking And Illicit Drug Markets
As a commodity drugs need to be produced and distributed in order to reach consumers. Among those drugs that are illegal, there are differences in how and where they are produced, and therefore, how and at what scale they are distributed. For example, heroin may be sold to consumers in nations such as the United States as powder but it starts as an agricultural product cultivated in other parts of the world and requires a manufacturing process to convert the plant product into the form preferred by consumers and a distribution process that crosses national boundaries. Methamphetamine, on the other hand, can be produced by cooking the required but easily available chemicals at a fixed location with enough equipment to be called a laboratory, or simply by shaking the chemicals together in a 2-L bottle while sitting in the back of a moving car. Cocaine starts as a plant grown in places like South America, but by the time it reaches consumers in the United States, it is in the form of a powder manufactured in a laboratory setting or as little rocks known as crack that are made almost anywhere from a small amount of the powder for small quantity sales. So a broad commercial perspective is helpful for a general understanding of the trafficking and trade in illicit drugs.
Industrial economists distinguish industry from markets. Whereas industry refers to groupings of individual businesses that share common techniques and processes for the production of a certain commodity, markets refer to groupings of the consumers of the product of that industry (Andrews 1949). When the product is illicit drugs, whatever specific drug it is, the markets of consumers for those drugs are inextricably linked to the production and distribution techniques and processes and the organization and operation of the illicit drug industry. For example, people who purchase heroin from a local dealer in their own community are nonetheless connected to the individuals and organizations that are involved in the international, national, and regional agricultural, manufacturing, and trafficking operations that are necessary to produce heroin and bring it to market.
The illicit drug industry and its related markets have been studied from a number of perspectives. Looking at drugs as a commercial enterprise, economists have studied the illicit drug industry for one or more drugs and their various markets in terms of things like price and purity (e.g., Caulkins 2005; Caulkins and Reuter 1998; Rhodes et al. 2000). Public health researchers have focused on the impact of drug trafficking and markets on communities in terms of issues related to things like drug-related morbidity and mortality and drug treatment and prevention (e.g., Curtis et al. 1995; Sommers et al. 2006). Criminologists have studied the illicit drug industry and markets in terms of issues related to public safety, criminal activity, and violence (e.g., Goldstein et al. 1992; Weisburd and Mazerolle 2000). Overall the questions raised by this body of research ask how is the industry and how are the markets organized and how do they operate? How large are they in terms of production and in terms of economic value? Specifically in terms of trafficking, given that the product is illegal, how does it get from producers to consumers? And what is the impact of the trafficking and marketing of illicit drugs on people, communities, and nations?
From the founding of the United States as a nation through to the late 1800s, it was common for home remedies to be freely available to citizens for dealing with personal problems of pain and illness. David Musto, a historian of drugs in America, called the late nineteenth century a period of “wide availability and unrestrained advertising” (1991, p. 42). During this period, the production and distribution of home remedies was not regulated by government, and many of these remedies contained palliative substances such as opium or stimulating substances such as cocaine (Inciardi 2007). Then in the early twentieth century, concerns for health and safety problems believed to be associated with their use resulted in the passage in 1906 by the United States Congress of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which imposed quality and packaging standards on all food and drug products (Inciardi 2007). Following that in 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act was passed and in 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act, and together they gave the federal government some measure of regulatory control over the production and distribution of drugs (Musto 1999). Unfortunately while these government actions through taxation regulated the production and distribution of drugs that were earlier found in popular home remedies, they did not address the consumer demand for those drugs. So the illicit drug industry and markets filled the void to meet the demand.
As the illicit drug industry grew, the government of the United States increasingly became concerned about the impact of these drugs on public health and safety. In the middle of the twentieth century, there was not sufficient scientific evidence to know what that impact really was, but there were strong beliefs and opinions and those were used to support the direction of public policy toward illicit drug use and users and trafficking and markets. In 1971, President Richard Nixon formally declared war on drugs (Inciardi 2007). With his declaration, attention shifted from drug users to drug trafficking, and in 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a component of the United States Department of Justice specifically charged with fighting the war on drug trafficking. Later President Ronald Reagan reaffirmed the war on drug trafficking, and then President George H.W. Bush with Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 thereby forming the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) as a policy agency to lead the national drug strategy. With ONDCP, the United States might finally have a Drug Czar, but the focus on drug trafficking as the problem and drugs as the enemy started with Nixon’s declaration of war and his formation of the DEA to fight that war.
While the United States was intensifying its war effort against drugs and drug traffickers, not all nations followed suit. Many others favored a policy of harm reduction emphasizing efforts to manage the harm to drug consumers and their communities from drug use rather than trying to control the supply of drugs through trafficking (Inciardi and Harrison 2000). For example, in the Netherlands, drug policy historically has favored protecting the health of users and reducing their health risks by focusing on programs of prevention and treatment (van Laar et al. 2011). Given a tradition known as “gedoogbeleid” that favors discretion when dealing with drugs and drug users, since the late twentieth century, the Dutch have formally and systematically not enforced laws involving small quantities of cannabis and have even established guidelines allowing certain retail establishments to sell cannabis to consumers without fear of prosecution as long as they adhere to established guidelines, such as not advertising and not selling to minors (MacCoun and Reuter 1997). Under international pressure in recent years, the Dutch government has placed greater limits on how these establishments can operate and who they can serve, but the tradition and policy allow the trade to continue. This does not mean that the government of the Netherlands favors unregulated trafficking or trade in illicit drugs. A recent report issued by the Netherlands National Drug Monitor to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (van Laar et al. 2011) notes that along with addressing the need to prevent drug use, the needs of drug users for treatment and rehabilitation, the reduction of harms faced by drug users, and lessening any disturbances to public safety they might cause in their communities, combatting drug production and trafficking is one of its main objectives. But the report continues, the “primary aim of Dutch drug policy is focused on health protection and health risk reduction” (van Laar et al. 2011, p. 15). Similarly, in the United Kingdom, a harm reduction approach to drugs has been in place going back to a report issued in 1926, The Report of the Departmental Committee on Morphine and Heroin (Bennett 1988).
While sovereign nations appropriately and naturally each have their own policy toward drugs, drug users, and drug trafficking, there has been international cooperation going back to 1909 when 13 nations gathered in Shanghai for the International Opium Commission (Musto 1991). At that meeting, which focused on opium and opiates, no binding decisions were made and no treaties signed. But other meetings followed. In 1911 there was a meeting of 12 nations in Hague resulting in an agreement for each nation to enact legislation to control narcotics trade and to fund educational programs. Then starting in 1961, there was a series of three international Conventions held under the auspices of the United Nations. Through the first two, all previous multinational treaties that had been negotiated from 1912 to 1953 were consolidated, and controls over 100 different substances considered to be narcotic drugs were tightened, and through the third in 1988, a focus was set on international drug trafficking (United Nations 1988).
Despite national and international efforts to control or manage it, today the illicit drug industry is well established on a global scale with active local markets and large and profitable national and international corporate-type manufacturers and distributors. Systems and procedures are in place to move drugs that are produced in one part of the world to other parts of the world where consumers are waiting to purchase and use them. With the focus on drug trafficking, the question then is what is the nature and scope of international trafficking? What is the impact of the traffic in illicit drugs on both producer and consumer nations and on their citizens?
Since the industry and the markets operate outside of the law, there are no official records of how much is produced or how much is sold or purchased. There are no official records of costs related to production or distribution of any illicit drug product, and no official records of how many consumers there are or what consumers have paid or are willing to pay for their drugs. So statisticians, economists, and other social scientists use available data sources to try to calculate the scope and scale of the illicit drug industry as a whole, and for particular drug industries and markets, such as heroin or cocaine. They use these data to derive estimates of drug consumption and estimates of the supply of drugs. For consumption estimates, they sometimes use data from surveys of samples of people who tell an interviewer about their experience using drugs, or not. For example, in the United States, estimates are derived using data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual nationwide household survey produced for the Federal government by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and administered to a random sample of 70,000 respondents age 12 and older asking them about their use of and experience with various illicit drugs. Estimates of consumer demand in the United States also come from the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) similarly maintained by SAMHSA, though in this case, counting the drug treatment and using experiences of about 1.5 million people annually admitted to drug treatment.
In addition to survey data, estimates of drug consumption and supply are also derived from available official record data from Federal, state, and local government agencies that have operational involvement in some way or other with acknowledged users of various illicit drugs. These agencies include, for example, law enforcement agencies that arrest drug users and dealers or traffickers, and treatment service providers that work with drug users to try to help them stop using drugs. Law enforcement records, for example, have been used to derive estimates of the supply of drugs based on a variety of law enforcement activities including crimes known to the police and arrests, but also things like the amount of particular drugs seized by various local, regional, and national law enforcement agencies. In the United States, the agency record data for supply estimates comes from national aggregate counts of crime and agency counts of arrests from sources like the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), an annual national count of crimes known to the police and arrests made by the police. More directly focused on the actual supply of drugs known to be in the country, another estimate comes from data on drugs seized and analyzed in laboratories by law enforcement for the DEA System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence (STRIDE) program (NDIC 2011), or the tactical intelligence collected by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), established by the DEA in 1974 for the collection and dissemination of information related to drug trafficking particularly along the United States border with Mexico.
In summary, what is known about the scope and scale of drug trafficking or even drug using is limited. No official records of activity in the illicit drug industry or drug markets are maintained. All estimates are indirect, derived from proxy measures. They are based on an accounting of the activity of individuals and agencies that in some way work with people who are involved in or with the drug industry. So there is some uncertainty about what is known or believed to be known about the illicit drug industry and drug trafficking.
Illicit Retail Drug Markets
Similarly there are no official records to support what is known or believed to be known about local drug markets and the retail trade in illicit drugs. However, there has been considerable research conducted over the last few decades on the organization and operation of illicit retail markets at the local level (National Institute of Justice 2003; National Research Council 2010, 2001). There are several ethnographic studies of markets in particular cities, and there are a number of studies that provide sociological, geographical, and economic analyses of market organization and operation. Important findings of these studies include the identification of differentiated roles among buyers and sellers of illicit drugs, the characteristics of social relationships and of structural forms in different local markets, and the variation among patterns of distribution and consumption across places like neighborhoods and by the different types of drugs being transacted.
An illicit retail drug market can be defined as the set of people, facilities, and procedures through which illicit drugs are transferred from sellers or dealers to buyers or users (National Research Council 2001, p. 160). As such they are economic enterprises and therefore operate in response to the forces of supply and demand. But unlike legitimate commercial enterprises, illicit drug markets participants are regularly faced with the an odd mix of rapid turnover and overlapping roles among sellers and buyers, a broad range of product price and quality in a limited geographic area, and an absence of any legitimate authority to settle disputes over things like market share or product quality. Consequently, the natural economic forces of supply and demand in such markets are tempered by the need of buyers and sellers to worry about things like the trustworthiness of the people they are dealing with and the fairness and security of those dealings. By definition in an illicit retail drug market, all transactions are criminal transactions. As a result every individual who participates as a buyer or seller in such a market risks a hostile encounter with law enforcement officers and criminal justice agencies. In addition they risk intimidation, coercion, or victimization by other buyers and sellers over market-related disputes or for just being there.
Drug Markets, Crime, And Violence
Estimates from official statistical data from surveys on drug using and the supply of illicit drugs known to law enforcement along with the evidence of a large body of social scientific research strongly suggest that there is a relationship between illicit drug trafficking and drug markets and crime and violence. For the most part, the research on the connection between drugs and crime and violence has focused on drug use, but there are also studies that directly link crime and violence with drug trafficking and drug markets. In an early study of homicide rates in the United States during the twentieth century, for example, criminologist Margaret Zahn found that the rate of homicide varied over time in relation to the establishment of markets for illicit products with rates of homicide being at their highest in the 1920s and 1930s, during the control of alcohol under Prohibition, and in the 1960s through 1970s, during periods of disruption in the heroin and cocaine markets (Zahn 1980). More recently, studies have found higher rates of crime and violence during periods of disruption in organization and operation of particular illicit retail drug markets. For example, in the late 1980s when crack cocaine markets were newly emerging in urban areas, researchers found that most of the crime and violence associated with those markets involved things like disputes between dealers over territory or disputes between sellers and buyers over the quality of the product sold (Brownstein 1996).
The focus of drug policy in the United States on drug trafficking has been linked over the years to a stated relationship between international drug trafficking and crime and violence. The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) of the United States Department of Justice in its annual threat assessment has regularly reported on violence and crime related to transnational crime organizations in producer nations, notably in Latin America and Asia, and its impact in and on the United States (NDIC 2011). In recent years, concern has focused on the Transnational Criminal Organizations in Mexico with the NDIC reporting that seven such organizations in Mexico “control much of the production, transportation, and wholesale distribution of illicit drugs destined for and in the United States” and that among them “a dynamic struggle for control of the lucrative smuggling corridors leading into the United States [has resulted] in unprecedented levels of violence in Mexico” (NDIC 2011, p. 7).
Similarly crime and violence have been associated with domestic illicit retail drug markets. In the 1970s in Chicago, Patrick Hughes conducted a groundbreaking epidemiological study of heroin addicts and concluded, “… heroin dealers must have a reputation for violence, otherwise addicts and other deviants would simply take their drugs and their money” (1977, p. 31). Not only did he observe that heroin dealers would use violence in the conduct of their business but also that other participants in the market were at risk of being the perpetrators or victims of crime and violence themselves through confrontations with others including drug users, drunks, and gang members (Hughes 1977, p. 31). A body of research conducted since that time provides additional though inconclusive support for the notion that while drug markets more often than not are peaceful, there is an observable relationship between the organization and operation of illicit retail drug markets and criminal violence (see Reuter 2009).
In 1985, sociologist Paul Goldstein conceptualized the ways that drugs and violence might be related (Goldstein 1985). He suggested that violence might be a consequence of drug ingestion, a response by an addicted drug user needing drugs and having to use force to get them, or the product of the normal organization and operation of the illicit drug trade. The latter he called systemic and suggested it could include things like disputes between drug dealers over claims to territory or among dealers and buyers over the quality of the product being sold. Just about the time that Goldstein was writing and talking about his tripartite framework, the level of violence and crime began to rise dramatically in United States cities concurrent with the introduction of crack cocaine. Public policymakers, criminal justice and law enforcement practitioners, and the news media around the country became alarmed and responded in the belief that the increasing crime and violence could be linked to the use of crack cocaine in city neighborhoods (Brownstein 1996). But studies using the tripartite framework provided preliminary evidence that in fact the growing crime and violence had more to do with market dynamics than with user behavior (Goldstein et al. 1992).
Conclusions And Future Research
In summary, there are limits to what is known and can be known about the illicit drug industry, drug trafficking, and drug markets. To some extent those limits result from the lack of official records available to be used for scientific or policy analyses. This problem limitation is not likely to be overcome in that the industry exists outside of the law. In addition, the research conducted in this area to date largely has followed the personal agenda of individual researchers and research teams rather than being guided by an organized and systematic program specifically designed to guide researchers and their studies in the direction of questions that need to be answered to adequately and effectively inform policy and practice. The unfortunate consequence has been that much of the policy that is made and many of the practices and programs that are initiated are guided by unfounded assumptions or political principles rather than by scientific evidence.
Nonetheless, there are some things that researchers have found that are convincing. The drug industry, with its consumer markets and the trafficking operations that comprise it, is highly organized and does operate not only on the local level but also on a global scale. Depending on the drug (and among illicit drugs and drugs used in illicit ways, there are many distinctions in what they do and how they are obtained and used), in some way or ways, there is a relationship between local retail market outlets for the product, large- and small-scale producers or manufacturers of the product, and the organized enterprises and wellestablished procedures and practices put into place to move the product from producers to consumers. And as all this happens outside of the law and legitimate authority, things do not always go well and sometimes the outcome is harmful and a threat to personal and public health and safety.
While there may be one or more studies that have addressed a particular question, it does not necessarily mean that the question has been adequately answered. So questions important for understanding, explaining, and addressing the institution of drug trafficking and any social and personal problems related to it remain open. As noted earlier, among the questions probably worth asking but certainly not all of the questions that need to be asked are the following: How is the industry and how are the markets organized, and how do they operate? How does drug trafficking work? How do different drugs go from producers to consumers? How much of all and different drugs are being produced, and how great is the demand for them? What is the value of illicit drug production worldwide, and what is the value of all drugs being consumed? What is the impact of the illicit drug industry on people, communities, and nations? Are there any positive outcomes? What are the harms? Besides scientific evidence, what if any ethical or moral principles need to be considered when making public decisions about policies and practices related to drugs and drug trafficking? What if any practical limitations are there that may restrict what can or cannot be done about drugs and drug trafficking?
What needs to be done now is not just a continuation of the current practice of individual researchers raising individual questions based on personal interest or public attention and designing studies. What needs to be done is the work by teams of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to design and develop a broader research agenda, probably international even more than national, to identify and study relevant questions about the drug industry and markets and drug trafficking to then allow policy to be made and practices implemented that will lead to outcomes that benefit and do not harm people, communities, and nations.
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