The drug trade at a glance

W.E. Purvis, R.V. Gundur

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The drug trade is one of the most lucrative commercial activities in the world, with billions of people using addictive substances, like nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, on a regular basis. But, when the idea of ‘drugs’ is bandied about in the public discourse, these substances are forgotten, and oft-demonised substances like opium, methamphetamines, cocaine, and (to an increasingly lesser extent) cannabis – many of which were once socially acceptable and commonly consumed in several societies – come to the fore of public debate. How and why some substances humans consume become prohibited while others do not is beyond the scope of this chapter; here, we focus on the transnational trade of drugs that are produced and/or sold illegally. The trade of drugs, like most commodities, is not singular. There are many trades and they can be described as existing along a spectrum of enterprise. At one end are legally produced and traded drugs, like pharmaceuticals and other mind-altering and addictive substances. On the other are illegally produced and traded substances. In between are controlled substances, including prescribed pharmaceuticals, that are sold in grey markets operating outside the requisite regulation or oversight. Along the spectrum, several other configurations exist depending on local and regional laws. Regardless of where a drug trade is on the spectrum, its objectives are ultimately to get a product to market and generate profit. Accordingly, the illicit drug trade – the trade of substances that are produced and/or sold illegally – has four core technical functions: production, transportation, wholesaling, and retail sale. What distinguishes illicit operators from their licit counterparts is the increased uncertain conditions under which illicit entrepreneurs must conduct business.
To that end, illicit drug traffickers continually adapt to new circumstances and challenges: changes in supply; increased risk of interdiction; competition over market share and supply routes; outsourcing operations; and finding new ways to sell products to the consumer. Globalisation and the growth of new technology have dramatically altered the trafficking landscape. The costs for traffickers of importing drugs and accessing markets further afield
have decreased dramatically, which in turn has reduced the costs of drug prices to consumers. Yet, operating in a global marketplace exposes traffickers and their business interests to greater risk, as they become the target of more sophisticated law enforcement tactics and strategic partnerships between states.
This chapter, thus, focuses on the ‘businesses’ of the transnational illicit drug trade, showing how different enterprises come together to deliver a product to the consumer. To understand the relationships involved, we first provide a brief history of the prohibition that gave rise to the drug trade. Second, we look at the principal component parts of the supply chain: producers, transporters, wholesalers, and retailers, and how these roles form the ‘crime script’ that
underwrites the illicit drug trade. Third, we briefly survey current market trends. Finally, we consider the policy effects on demand and supply behaviour between the different links of the illicit drug supply chain.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearch Handbook on Transnational Crime
EditorsValsamis Mitsilegas, Saskia Hufnagel, Anton Moiseienko
Place of PublicationCheltenham, UK
PublisherEdward Elgar
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9781784719449
ISBN (Print)9781784719432
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Publication series

NameResearch Handbooks on Globalisation and the Law series


  • drug trade
  • drug supply
  • addictive substances
  • drug problems


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