An investigation into drug trafficking and its history

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The history of drug trafficking in the United States dates back to a couple of centuries ago when it was practiced in different forms. However, drug trafficking as is presently recognized shot into international prominence in the late 1960s and has turned into an international scourge. Drug trafficking afflicts all the members of the society and has extensive implications to the welfare of the nation under siege. There is a growing feeling among many observers, especially in the United States, that the war on drugs is a futile campaign that only costs the American people millions in taxation to fund law enforcement attempts. Indeed, in a ten year period spanning from 1990 to 2000, the United States budgetary allocation for drug control shot from $9.7 to $17.7 (Ojeda, 2002). In the same period of time, the number of agents in the Drug Enforcement Administration was reinforced from approximately 3190 to 4560 in attempts to curb the drug trafficking menace.

Are these attempts in vain or is the government, in collaboration with our neighbors and the international community at large, finally getting things under control? These paper attempts to understand the history of drug trafficking, local and international efforts spared by the government in fighting illicit drug use, the connection between drug trafficking and crime and solutions available for the global community in combating drug trafficking.

History of drug trafficking

Drug trafficking is generally defined as possession of illicit substance(s) in specific quantities that amount to the substance(s) being peddled. The United States legal definition of drug trafficking is more comprehensive and refers to it as a state, federal or local offense to be involved in the exportation, importation, intentional distribution and possession of illicit (counterfeit) substance (The United States Sentencing Commission, 2008). The severity of the punishment emanating from the possession and premeditated distribution of such banned substances is dependent on factors such as the specificity of the substance, the state or Local County in which the substance has been impounded and the quantity of the substance impounded. To understand how the United States Sentencing Commission came up with the penalties for drug traffickers, it is imperative to understand the history of drug trafficking.

Whereas human beings have ingested various sorts of drugs since time immemorial, it is only until the 19th century that active substances present in these drugs were discovered. The discovered substances like cocaine and morphine were unregulated two centuries ago and physicians freely prescribed them to patients to cure a variety of ailments. The drugs were delivered to patients in equally unregulated means such as through traveling tinkers and mail. Morphine, for instance, was freely administered to wounded soldiers during the American Civil War giving rise to Opium dens and consequently addicts. By the start of the 20th century, there was an estimated half a million addicts in the United States (Cherry et al, 2002). Whereas Opium dens were banned in the late 1800s, the first legislation to regulate substance use was enacted in 1906 under the Pure Food and Drug Act (Cherry et al, 2002). Later in 1914 the procurement of cocaine and opiates was regulated by the Harrison Narcotic Act and heroine was completely prohibited.

Since then a number of drugs related legislative enactments have been passed to control the proliferation of abusive substances. The most prominent pronouncement against substance abuse was made by President Richard Nixon in 1968 when he launched the 'war on drugs' campaign. In 1972, the Drug Enforcement Administration was effectively created under the Nixon administration with four agencies of the federal government were combined to combat drugs. Later in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan revitalized the fight against drugs entering the country through neighboring countries. Under him, a litany of laws were instigated that granted federal officials who were fighting drug trafficking the privilege to access martial arts training and intelligence, state-of-the-art equipment to trail drug trafficking networks and impound drug traffickers. At about the same time, federal officials in collaboration with local governments enacted legislations that permitted the confiscation and retention of assets obtained from drug money by officials. Drug abuse awareness and treatment programs were launched, including the then first lady's (Nancy Reagan) "Just Say No" crusade, which heartened the youth with media messages to resist temptations to use drugs. President Reagan made the fight against illicit drugs a major component of the United States' foreign policy (Chepesiuk, 1999).

The United States did not regress from openly demonstrating the implications of drug trafficking on its foreign policy when it became involved in high profile assaults on overseas drug barons. Indeed Presidents George H.W Bush's and Bill Clinton's administrations would be involved in key foreign policy measures against countries that were perceived to be sympathetic to drug trafficking. Colombian drug Lord Pablo Emilio Escobar was killed by the Colombian police in December 1993, but the radio technology that pinpointed to the exact whereabouts of his hiding was provided by the United States Special Forces (Bowden, 2008). President Bill Clinton's foreign policy doctrine of aiding foreign governments committed to the war against drug, like Colombia, has been replicated ever since.

Moral considerations in the fight against drug trafficking

As earlier mentioned in the introduction of the paper, drug trafficking is a scourge that threatens the fabric of the society. Drug abuse can be associated with every kind of anti-social behavior mostly among the young people. In countries where the drug menace has spread to levels where it cannot be successful fought, there is always the risk of political instability. The urgency to combat drug trafficking in countries where channels of distribution are not well established can therefore not be overemphasized. In studying the subject of morality versus fight against drug trafficking, it is crucial to study countries where drug cartels have a strong hold on the grassroots. Understanding the dilapidated conditions of some of these countries and the power and influence of drug money can provide an insight into why it's safer not to decriminalize drug trafficking. Countries such as Colombia and Mexico south of the border present excellent case studies in digesting the implications that engulf a nation that is completely overwhelmed by drug trafficking forces.

Colombia has had four main drug cartels whose influences in parts of the country, if not the entire country, were so substantial they threatened the stability government's stability. The Pablo Escobar led Medellin cartel that ended in 1993 was so ruthless that its leader was believed to have been the most ruthless drug baron to have lived south of the United States border (Bowden, 2008). The Medellin cartel killed thousands of people, among them senior government officials, journalists and members of law enforcement. The cartel was backed up by M-19 guerillas but also supported paramilitary factions (Shanty & Mishra, 2008). The Colombian government needed the support of United States Special Forces to eliminate Escobar. Other cartels in the Colombian nation that have destabilized the country are the Cali Cartel in Southern Colombia led by Rodriguez Orejuela and José Santacruz Londonó that were famous for kidnappings and who had significant influence in the country's justice system. They were also involved in money laundering and political assassinations. The Norte Del Valle Cartel operating along the north of the country smuggled an excess of 500 tons of cocaine to Mexico and ultimately to the United States. The cartel thrived in corruption and bought their way into law enforcement of the country and affiliated itself with terrorist organizations like the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The last prominent cartel in Colombia was the North Coast Cartel based in Barranquilla city on the Caribbean coast. Its leader, Alberto OrlandÄ-z-Gamboa, was regarded as equally ruthless as Escobar. Gamboa was so powerful that traffickers paid him taxes to peddle drugs in the city of Barranquilla.

The drug cartels in Mexico are very extensive and have been known to cripple government services in some parts of the country. Mexico has several powerful drug cartels that include Beltrăn Leyva Cartel, Gulf Cartel, Los Negros, Los Zetas, La Familia Cartel and others (Grayson, 2010). These cartels are rampant in the states of Baja California, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Guerrero (Grayson, 2010). While drug war has slowed down the supply of cocaine, violence instigated by these cartels has not proportionately subsided. The country's security situation has deteriorated to conditions that security experts deem to be irreparable. The most ominous signal that the situation is irreparable is the escalation of violence and drug-associated homicides, open display of drug advertising banners along highways of major cities and inducement of soldiers and law enforcement officials into the drug trafficking organization with the promise of better pay. Some drug cartels execute members and post execution footage on YouTube (Roig-Franzia, 2007). Mexico's political stability borders on being a failed state. There are too many social ills bedeviling the nation; street violence in turf wars, corruption among government officials, excessive human rights violations, suppression of media by execution of whistle blowing journalists and assassination of unsoiled politicians (Archibold & Cave, 2011).

These two countries clearly demonstrate the decadence that can potentially arise in U.S cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami if the Drug Enforcement Administration does not reinforce its efforts in combating the abuse and proliferation of these banned substances. There are misconceptions in many quarters that criminalization of drug tracking may jeopardize morality and safety of the society. Such arguments fall flat in the face logic if the two scenarios manifesting themselves in Colombia and Mexico are analyzed. Let us consider these arguments. Proponents of decriminalization of drug war argue that the economics of drug trafficking is the source of the problem. Production of cocaine is currently relatively inexpensive and they argue that criminalizing it will make cocaine expensive for consumers and very profitable to producers and peddlers. This argument is a half-truth in the sense that while the drug being expensive means the business is more profitable for traffickers, it also means that potential new users will be discouraged from experimenting and those who cannot afford will most probably seek rehabilitation. Statistics from the Substance Abuse and Health Services Administration indicate that at least a million new users are induced into cocaine every year ("lecture notes for chapter 13"). With the price of cocaine going up, it is possible that the number of users will go down and further reduce the clients of these drug traffickers.

Proponents of decriminalization of drug trafficking ignore the socio-economic implications of drug use on healthcare, education and economy. Addiction to banned substances renders addicts economically unproductive and dependent on others for upkeep, makes drug users prone to unhealthy reproductive behaviors like susceptibility to STDs and unwanted pregnancies. What is morally upright? Using government resources to fight a future situation potentially similar to one manifesting itself in Mexico and Colombia, or decriminalizing drug trafficking and risk financially empowering drug traffickers?

Foreign Policy and Drug Trafficking

Attempts by the United States government to appreciably decrease the flow of banned substances from overseas into the United States market have bore little fruit (Archibold & Cave, 2006). Interestingly, despite all the efforts, the production of illegal drugs has radically increased. A congressional research service report in 2006 indicated that the production of marijuana and opium doubled in the last ten years, with the last decade also witnessing a tripling of coca production (Perl, 2006). It therefore makes the global programs directed at controlling narcotics an issue of urgent concern. The evident national resolve among political players to handle the drug trafficking quandary has been plagued by inherent discrepancy between the country's anti-drug trafficking policy on one side and federal policies on the other side. The inexorable implementation of drug control contrivances at times hinders the implementation of other foreign policies, and creates political unpredictability and disarticulation of economic policies in states where the production of narcotics is deeply ensconced socially and politically. In these instances, the outlawing of the supply of drugs and United States logistical apparatus to aid the inter-country shipping of goods and services is significantly at odds. The United States international policy on Narcotics needs cooperative input by all nations affected by drug trafficking. Current legislations permit the President to deny any U.S. aid to nations that do not show counternarcotics duties.

Because of the logical appreciation of the reality that illicit drug trade is a sensitive international issue that provides lucrative incomes for manufacturers and peddlers of banned substances, a better comprehension of the production, transportation and supply networks have to be made to combat the global criminal activities that result from the trade. Whereas the understanding of the distribution of proceeds from the sales of these drugs is deficient, it is known that the supply of banned drugs in the country is perpetrated by foreign cartels that possess serious authority in the streets. These cartels collect revenue from distribution channels and launder the proceeds in billions of dollars to drug kingpins abroad through foreign financial institutions. Such proceeds then empower these drug barons to compete with police forces and even confront the legitimacy of national governments. The 2006 United States congressional report on drug abuse in the country indicated that 80 percent of all banned substances in the country were shipped from overseas and the report also indicated that practically all the heroin and cocaine were imported.

The war on drugs campaign as spelled out by the federal government is complex in the sense that is attempts to combat drug abuse through reducing demand and cutting down supply channels. Reducing demand is mainly a national policy issue, but cutting down on supply channel is foreign policy quandary. About two thirds of federal budgetary allocations goes to the cutting down of supply channels (Per, 2006). These budgetary allocations are meant to fund endeavors to subvert operations of foreign cartels that generate their income by selling banned substances to the users in the American market. They are also meant to sever any existing political connections or links that the cartels enjoy and impounding consignments of the substances or any assets owned by drug barons and their associates. Because of the obvious reason that virtually all these illicit drugs are imported, key interdiction operations are conducted on the United States borders, entry ports, in the Pacific and Atlantic waters, across transshipment channels and in production locations.

The 2006 United States State Department made public yearly report on the Narcotics control policy reveals the existing policy on drug control. In the report, the State Department outlines the overriding goal of the global drug policy; reduction of the amount of illegal narcotics going into the United States territories. The second and equally crucial goal is to cut down on the quantity of banned substances that are being grown, developed and consumed internationally. The United States global drug strategy is executed by a comprehensive approach, which incorporates suppression of narcotic plants, prohibition and enforcement of decrees relating to production and transportation of drugs in drug-infested countries, cooperation of countries inter-woven by drugs trade, sanctions or economic support and development of institutions to aid the war on drugs. United States global narcotics intervention is led by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), under the State Department.

The United States finances endeavors to uproot coca, marijuana and opium in countries such as Colombia and Mexico. These endeavors are upheld by governmental groups by way of diverse programs such as providing herbicides that devastate narcotic crops, availing technical equipment for spraying of the chemical herbicides and providing technical information assistance. Agency for International Development has been involved in sponsorship of programs that are meant to foster economic development and offer substitute employment sources for citizens of countries infested by the drugs trade. Public diplomacy and Public Affairs wing of the State Department is responsible for transmission of crucial information on the ground, which highlights the quandary of narcotics trade (Perl, 2006). The Agency for International Development is also heavily involved in the funding of awareness campaigns on drug related abuses in more than 30 countries across Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia.

Law enforcement and interdiction is a key component of foreign policy, as it concerns the stratagem that seeks to assist host nations, engulfed in the narcotics transiting and shipment, in impounding substances meant for the United States market. A closely related strategy is launching major offensives on underworld powers, immobilizing the leadership of such gangs and adversely severing their political and socio-economic hierarchy. This assault engrosses that training of law enforcement of host nations and arming them with superior weaponry and tactics. Law enforcement trainings in foreign host nations is carried out in excess of 70 countries globally (Grayson, 2010). The Drugs Enforcement Agency closely monitors the progress of such countries, providing assistance in destabilizing major trafficking channels. A significant quandary in the law enforcement training of host nations and destabilization of trafficking routes is the challenge of how to better deal with criminals facilitating terrorist groupings and drug cartels. Streamlining operations between anti-terrorism units and anti-narcotics agencies is potentially a logistical and operational problem.

As of the present, Afghanistan has a serious control on the heroin exported to Europe. Even though statistics fluctuate over time, the country has probably exported in excess of 90 percent of the entire globe's heroin. Afghanistan's dubious honor sadly unmasks the problem that arises when a host nation is both a drug infested den and a terrorism hub. The United States has spent remarkably too much on anti-terrorism war and neglected war on heroin production in the Arab country. The Afghanistan situation makes the urgency and necessity to combine anti-terrorism efforts with anti-narcotics efforts in equitable proportions so as not to leave loose ends in curbing both the two social evils. There are consistent arguments in many quarters that the colossal amounts of heroin produced by the country to a great extent aid the export of terrorism to western countries.

Drugs trafficking and Criminal Law

In the 2007 and 2008, the Drugs Enforcement Agency seized the heaviest marijuana evidence since the late 80s. The District Enforcement Agency seized about 660 tons of marijuana in 2008 presenting a drastic yet telling increase from the ones seized just a year ago, 356 tons in 2007 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008). The United States government is highly critical of the influence of marijuana and the punishments for offense related to drug possession are clearly stringent. Even the penalty for those found to be first time offender is arguably very castigatory. As such an examination of the charges for the possession of marijuana reveals the unforgiving punitive codes for those deemed abusive to the drug and by an extension to other banned substances.

As argued under 'moral consideration in the fight against drug trafficking', decriminalization of drug trafficking is a dangerous move that might set a destructive precedent. Everybody acknowledges that current efforts to fight drug use are not delivering the desired results. But rather than blatantly decriminalizing drug use, it would be a safer bet to make the charges for drug trafficking less lenient and observe the outcome. A case where an innocent person is charged with conspiracy to traffic drugs because they were arrested while in the company of another person in possession of drugs is not so uncommon. Such an unsuspecting person faces severe penalties (sometimes a minimum of ten years) for crimes they were not aware of because the law does not allow the judge to offer lenient sentences (Susan, 1999). Another case where an intellectually gifted student with no previous criminal record sells less than an ounce of marijuana and is caught and sentenced to serve not less than a year in federal prison (Bale, 2011) opens our eyes to the austerity of sentences as presently constituted in criminal law. Weighing up of quantities of illegal substance impounded on persons as a means of determining the prison sentence to be meted out is grossly unfair. That 4.99 grams of cocaine brings a year of prison sentence whereas 5.01 grams of the same gets an offender a 5 year sentence just shows how skewed the system is. A Massachusetts lawyer challenged the court on the front (DelSignore, 2011). If possession of Marijuana gets an offender a longer sentence than a convicted rapist then the laws clearly need to be amended.

A breakdown of the penal codes for possession of marijuana is delineated below. Like aforementioned in the previous paragraph, possession of 49 plants or having a mixture of marijuana weighing 50 kilograms fetches a prison sentence of five years. This can be substituted or added to a further fine of a million dollars. 50-99 plants or similar kilograms of the marijuana mixture can result in an offender being jailed for 20 years on top of a million dollars worth of fine or either of the two penalties. There is a possible 5-40 year incarceration for those found in possession of marijuana weighing between 100 kilograms to 999 kilograms; such persons could also receive a 2 million dollar fine on top of their sentence. Finally, a possible life sentence for those peddling marijuana weighing in excess of one ton, or a 10 million dollar fine or both (The United States Sentencing Commission, 2008).

Despite the federally prescribed penalties for possession of varying amounts of marijuana and other banned substances, there is a general variation in the conviction rates and treatment of offender by states. Different states in the United States observe varying levels of stringency or leniency when handling cases dealing with drug abuse. Compared to her neighbors, Connecticut rules are most harsh when dealing with offenders, whereas New York is very lenient. New Hampshire records the highest conviction rates for drug peddlers and users, and this is evident from the number of drug abusers in New Hampshire penitentiaries. Nevertheless, different substances fetch varying stringency in penal codes; a factor that implicitly is determined by the degree of lethality of the drug. Cocaine, heroin and crack are categorized as far more lethal than marijuana and attract harsher sentences once convicted. A first-time narcotics offender (peddlers of cocaine, heroin and crack for the first time) will get a seven year jail term or a 50,000 thousand dollar fine or both. A second offense doubles the fine and fetches a 15 year jail sentence. Chronic offenders get 25 years behind bars with a quarter of a million dollars worth in fine.

Court proceedings, advised by the penal code discrepancies in several states, have sought to make the decrees on drug abuse more correctional that retributive. The rise of drug courts has ensured that judicial undertakings to specifically handle the drug trafficking menace are streamlined. These judicial institutions, tasked with the crucial responsibility of handling cases of abuse of banned substances by mostly juveniles, have become a resourceful avenue for corrective justice rather than agents of retribution. Non-violent offenders of the drug trafficking penal codes are given a good chance to redeem themselves rather than be condemned into psychological, emotional and financial obliteration under the traditional court system. The current number of drug courts in the country stands at around 2, 460, and are spread across all the fifty states (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008). The drug court model incorporates binding legal services; trial, prosecution and probation. It also incorporates enforcement of probation decrees (in cases where an offender is under probation), monitoring of the psychological and mental status of the offender, and treatment of offenders. Treatment basically involves attempts to deliver non-violent drug users from the chain of addiction.

Drug court models are designed to function under definite specifics, which incorporate regulated supervision by judiciary, compulsory substance testing, reinforcing sanctions and improving treatments to assist offenders break from the shackles of addiction and ultimately abandon drug related criminal activities. The National Association of Drug Courts Professionals (NADCP) presented fundamental modules, which can be customized to fit in the unique settings of diverse communities across the land (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008). Integration of alcohol and other addictive substance management services with justice system is the core module of the drug court. The implementation of approaches that are not adversarial to non-violent drug users is another core module. Early identification of individuals in neighborhoods with a history of drug use, and who will mostly probably be induced into drug use is a critical component service of the drug court. Juveniles who have not used drugs but have parents, brothers, sisters, cousins and close relatives dealing in drugs are conscripted into sensitization programs and offered informative materials on perils of drug use. Monitoring and appraisals are carried out to ascertain the impact of drug court modules. Statistics collected from these centers clearly point to drug courts being resourceful in availing opportunities to first-time offenders and risk groups to change their attitude (Ojeda, 2002).

The lowered rates of recidivism for drug offenders who have been transformed by drug courts is testament to the resourcefulness of the fundamental modules designed to combat drug use in the streets. Computed recidivism rates from these correctional instruments hypothesize that between four and twenty six percent of juveniles who enrolled for drug courts and who were hooked to drugs failed to beat the addiction. On the flip side, almost half of those who ignored the drug courts and who were chronic drug users found themselves back in the shackles of drug abuse. Most of these were convicted peddlers and users of drugs from the streets, and their data was collected from correctional institutions (Bowden, 2008).

The undeniable goal of criminal law is to maintain order. Drug abuse encourages chaos and lawlessness. All criminal activities are made up of associated criminal elements. The handing out of capital punishment must be such that a heinous crime does not elude retributive justice. Mild punishments are supposed to instigate caution or deterrence, incapacitate perpetrators, rehabilitate convicts and dispense a general aura of restitution. These are the tenets of criminal justice. Drug trafficking is a relative offense when the aspects of quantity and state are discussed. However, caution must be observed so that punishments for drug related offenses are punished proportionately to the crime.


In spite of the various reservations forwarded in opposition to United States' war on drugs, the current sentiment robustly supports an intolerance attitude towards drug trafficking. A policy that is intolerant to drug trafficking ensures that the negative effects of drug trafficking in the society are kept in check. It is also true that the policies of countries that have been completely submerged in systemic drug trafficking will be diametric to those of United States where government structures are still intact. United States' foreign policies for dealing with such drug-infested nations should persistently echo it's intolerance to drug trafficking, but attempt to strike a balance that ensures the stability of such nations is not jeopardized when exporting the war on drugs. The United States criminal justice system however has a duty to amend some of the draconian laws that place first time offenders in austere situations.