Geopolitics Of The Global Illegal Drug Trade Criminology Essay

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This paper discusses the issues surrounding the global illegal drugs trade and its impacts on 2 case study countries which are tied to the drugs trade in a particularly notable way, focusing on the question, Should drugs and the drug trade be legalized? These case studies include the following. Central Asia - particularly Afghanistan as an LEDC mass producer of illegal drugs, looking at enforcement and licensing as 2 different options for the future of the drugs trade in Afghanistan. The Netherlands - an MEDC consumer of illegal drugs which has alternative policies towards the drug trade, particularly concerning 'soft drugs' (such as cannabis), being the closest developed country in the world to having soft drugs 'legalized' and showing that as many people predict, legalization does not necessarily mean that consumption and abuse will increase. Finally looking at the role of Non-Government Organisations within the global illegal drugs trade and what their future role would be if the drug trade was to become legalized. In conclusion, the article summarises the points raised and presents the answer that legalization of the illegal drugs trade could be a viable option but would have to be carefully and strategically implemented, focusing on the benefits that could arise from this.

Keywords: Drugs, Development, Legalisation, Drug enforcement, NGO


One of the biggest problems facing the world today is the production, trade and consumption of illegal drugs. Millions of people around the world are involved in either this trade either as producers, vendors or consumers, despite it being a highly illegal activity with strict and often harsh penalties for even the possession of a small amount of these illegal substances. In this paper we will be discussing the consequences of the global illegal drugs trade in different areas of the world, and whether the legalization and regulation of this trade would be positive or negative.


Afghanistan is one of the world's top producers of illegal substances, in particular opium, and there are many reasons why this is the case. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the CIA world fact book, with a GDP per capita of just $800 and ranked 181st on the UN's Human Development Index - second lowest in the world. (CIA World Fact Book, 2009) It is a landlocked country with direct links to Russia and the EU - 2 of the world's largest illegal drug markets - with land movement being extensive due to lack of border control. Rugged terrain, with many isolated areas makes government surveillance and law enforcement difficult. Due to this and Afghanistan's notoriety for lawlessness, instability and poverty (resulting from decades of war which have ravaged the country) the opium trade has flourished and now a huge proportion of the country is dependent upon its cultivation. It is interesting that under the Taliban regime, levels of opium production were showing signs of falling, but since 2001 when the USA declared its "War on Terror", this level has increased significantly from around 75,000 hectares in 2000 to nearing 200,000 hectares in 2007.

So why is the opium trade such a huge issue? Agriculture is the country's main form of industry and the collapse of the economy forced more and more farmers to seek alternative methods of generating revenue from crops. This came at a time when demand for opium was increasing due to restrictions being made in nearby opium producing countries such as India. Farmers realised there huge profits could be made from the cultivation of opium poppies, with the risk of being caught relatively low due to the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, despite it being a punishable offence. In addition, opium poppies are notoriously hardy- they are almost drought resistant compared to legal crops such as wheat. Many Afghans have used poppy cultivation as a means of investment in legitimate businesses due to lack of personal loans resulting from the poor economy; while illegitimate moneylenders have high interest rates and use various forms of intimidation such as kidnapping. The seriousness of this situation being that many farmers in Afghanistan have little other legal lucrative alternative, and the government is doing little to encourage farmers to do so. There is also significant evidence to suggest that the since the fall of Taliban, they and other terrorist groups are now significantly funded by the drug trade.

What then are the options available? The first is enforcement of current laws whilst offering alternative livelihood options. This involves better monitoring of opium growers in the country and eradication of Heroin production factories, and offering farmers incentives to grow alternative crops. One suggestion is substitution with Saffron, another lucrative crop which has proven to grow well in Afghanistan's climate. This would also involve improving the infrastructure needed to support legal crop cultivation. The other option which has been suggested is licensing the opium trade. This gives the government much more control over the end use of opium, as it could be used in the production of valuable legal opiates such as morphine. Trade could also be taxed, providing valuable revenue for the undeveloped economy of Afghanistan. Another issue this would solve is eliminating warlords and severing the ties between the drug trade and human/weapons trafficking as it could be regulated and monitored by government authorities ".... (Licensing) combines the best of both worlds. It stabilizes a crucial country in the global war on terrorism and alleviates the pain crisis in AIDS stricken developing countries. It is not a silver bullet for Afghanistan's many troubles, but it does pave the way for the country to escape its current development and security crisis" (Kamminga , Van Ham. 2006). This is not necessarily saying that Heroin should be made legal; but is another option that could be looked into with the legalisation and regulation of all drugs, rather than a select few.


The Netherlands government takes an alternative approach to the enforcement of anti-drug laws, believing that drug use is a public health issue, rather than a criminal one; and that there is a difference between soft drugs (cannabis) and hard drugs (cocaine, heroin). A quote which summarises this attitude is "if a problem has proved to be unstoppable, it is better to try controlling it instead of continuing to enforce laws that have shown to be unable to stop the problem" (WordIQ: Drug policy of the Netherlands. 2010). They therefore employ a policy of non-enforcement towards soft drugs such as cannabis, but will still prosecute users if they are found causing a public disturbance, or pose a risk to themselves or others whilst under the influence of drugs. The Netherlands drug policy has a number of aims which are:

To separate the market between hard and soft drugs so that soft drug users do not come into contact with hard drugs

To limit the sale of soft drugs to minors

To divert profits from the sale of soft drugs away from criminal drug dealers

To gain tax from the legitimate sale of soft drugs

To use the money gained to assist problem drug users (i.e. Treatment and rehabilitation) and promote awareness and education of hard drugs

To prevent soft drug users being criminalised unnecessarily

So is this policy working? In the USA where cannabis is strictly illegal and carries severe fines and prison time, 42.4% of Americans have tried the drug, whilst in The Netherlands only 19.8% of the population have tried cannabis, despite it being tolerated and sold freely in coffee shops (Degenhardt et al. 2008) 9.7% of young adults consume soft drugs once a month in Holland; this figure is far lower than the UK level of 15.8%, but higher than in other European countries such as Sweden (3%). The EU average of soft drug users that go on to become problem drug users is 0.52%, in The Netherlands this figure is just 0.3%, and the number of hard drug users is also considerably lower. These statistics show that while levels of soft drug use in The Netherlands is not significantly higher or lower than the rest of Europe, the levels of problem drug users and hard drug users is considerably lower. It is also interesting to note that due to taxes gained from the legitimate sale of cannabis, around 90% of drug users can be treated effectively.


NGO's around the world aim to eradicate problems associated with the illegal drug trade; however without financial backing and access to resources, their policies are often limited. Their strategies focus on influencing government protocol and targeting social issues in a 'prevention over cure' approach. The social aspect focuses on education of the young and those vulnerable to drug addiction, in addition to financing and organising rehabilitation for those suffering from addiction. Strategies also target producers of drugs, particularly agricultural ones. These producers are influenced to cultivate alternative products (such as wheat), both through financial incentives and legal prevention. All aspects of the global illegal drugs trade span over large areas, making it difficult for individual state governments to act effectively. NGO's such as the UN, WHO and the EU create policies targeting drug abuse issues to socially improve nations. High costs and infrastructure requirements for drugs trade prevention deter LEDCs from acting, as their costs do not warrant their benefits - it is the state importing that often suffers the most. 

So what would be the effect of the legalisation of the illegal drugs trade in regards to NGO's? Effectively there would be dissolution of all strategies to cease and prevent the global trade in illegal drugs. Trade would shift to safer routes through legally disclosed transport subject to scrutiny at borders, so potential would remain for NGO involvement in cases of unregulated drugs being traded across borders.


A quote from 'The Economist' claims that the UN believes that"The drug market has "stabilised", meaning that more than 200 m people, or almost 5% of the world's adult population still take illegal drugs" and goes on to say that " providing honest information about the health risks of drugs and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers towards the least harmful ones" (The Economist, 2009). However, the legalisation of drugs is a highly complex and sensitive issue which has many social, political, moral and economic implications. The scale of which is unimaginable and is something which many people feel would be an impossible task.

It is a known fact that people around the world produce, distribute and use drugs- as they have done for thousands of years. Perhaps money would be better spent on educating people about the dangers of certain drugs (including legal ones) as well as helping those that have become dependent on either the sale or use of illegal drugs, rather than criminalising those that use them safely, or have little other viable options other than producing drugs. This could also have benefits for those in the developing world who rely on the illegal drugs trade as a source of income, and could eliminate the violence involved with the illegal drugs trade.