Of all the illicit products trafficked by organized crime, drug trafficking is the most (in)famous and it has received systematic attention over the last decades. There are three international drug control conventions that regulate a range of activities connected to drugs, including the production, distribution and possession of controlled substances for medical and scientific purposes. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended in 1972 merged pre-existing multilateral treaties, and sought to streamline control by establishing the International Narcotics Control Board, which replaced pre-existing supervisory bodies. The Convention's aim was to assure adequate supplies of narcotic drugs for medical and scientific purposes, while preventing their diversion into the illicit market and abuse. It exercises control over more than 120 narcotic drugs. (INCB, 2018)
The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 extended the international drug control system to certain psychotropic substances including hallucinogens, central nervous stimulants, and sedative-hypnotic, such as LSD, amphetamines, and barbiturates. Finally, the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 extended the control regime to substances frequently used in the illicit manufacture of controlled drugs (so-called precursors), and focuses on the growing problem of transnational trafficking while strengthening the framework of international cooperation in criminal matters, including extradition and mutual legal assistance.
These three conventions enjoy broad global support, and therefore reflect and promote international consensus and cooperation against illicit drug trafficking. Since international drug control has long been a priority, in 1946 the Economic and Social Council established Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the central policy-making body of the United Nations in drug related matters. The Commission continues to meet annually to address international drug control issues and common strategies. (UNGA, 2016) For instance, the Commission decides whether new substances should be included in one of the schedules or tables of the three drug control conventions and if there are moving across or deletions in the schedules and tables.
Over the past decades, there has been concerted global effort to track illicit drug production, drug trafficking as well as governments' interventions on illicit drug markets. Therefore, the available data on cultivation and seizures of controlled drugs and on trends of drug use provides a useful overview of the extent of drug trafficking in recent years. (UNODC, 2017)
As the 2017 World Drug Report points out, although drugs continue to represent a major source of revenue for organized criminal groups, business models are changing. Criminals are exploiting new technologies and networks, such as the Darknet (i.e. an encrypted virtual network), that are altering the nature of the illicit drug trade and the types of players involved. For instance, it has been found that organized criminal groups operating in virtual networks tend to have looser ties and to be organized in horizontal structures (as opposed to vertical or hierarchical structures); also, studies have highlighted that smaller groups have become more significant. In addition, fewer groups are exclusively dedicated to drug trafficking, since a considerable number also operates in other illicit sectors.
According to the Report, an estimated quarter of a billion people - or around five per cent of the global adult population - used drugs at least once in 2015. Overall, drug trafficking seems to have increased slightly in 2015 and some drug markets, particularly cocaine and synthetic drugs - including synthetic opium - appear to be thriving.
For cocaine trafficking, the vast bulk of the flow proceeds from the Andean region in South America, and it is largely sold in North America (usually via Central America) and Europe (for instance, via West Africa). The Report also shows that consumption of cocaine in the United States has been in long-term decline since the 1980s. The most recent decline could be attributed to renewed enforcement efforts in Latin America, such as those aimed at supply disruption in Mexico, which might have resulted in poor quality product in the US drug market. Nonetheless, these efforts have also increased competition and violence between trafficking groups. At the same time, demand for cocaine in Europe appears to be stabilizing after a period of rapid growth. (UNODC, 2017)
With regard to heroin trafficking, approximately two-thirds of the global heroin supply comes from opium poppy cultivated in Afghanistan. The main trafficking routes of opiates out of Afghanistan are the so-called Balkan route (via the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey, mainly to West and Central Europe), the southern route (to South Asia, Gulf countries and other countries in the Near and Middle East and in Africa); and the northern route (through Central Asia mainly to the Russian Federation). The vast majority of heroin and morphine seizures globally occur along these routes. (UNODC, 2010; UNODC, 2017)
As for the global synthetic drugs market, the 2017 Report shows that it is more complex to study for a number of reasons. For instance, the information on synthetic drug manufacturing is more limited than that available on plant-based drugs (cocaine, opiates and cannabis) and this is largely due to the fact that synthetic drugs can be manufactured anywhere, as the process does not involve the extraction of active constituents from plants that have to be cultivated in certain conditions for them to grow. The challenges in tracking synthetic drug production prevents an accurate estimation of the volume of the corresponding market worldwide. Nevertheless, data on synthetic drug seizures and drug use suggest that the supply of synthetic drugs is expanding. (UNODC 2017)
In particular, recent attention has focused on the threats posed by methamphetamine and new psychoactive substances, two types of synthetic drugs. UNODC uses the term new psychoactive substances (NPS) to refer to those "substances of abuse, either in a pure form or a preparation," that are not controlled by the 1961 or 1971 Conventions, "but which may pose a public health threat". (UNODC, 2018) The term "new" does not necessarily refer to the fact that they are new inventions - several NPS were in fact first synthesized 40 years ago - but to substances that have recently become available on the market.
According to the 2017 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment, an increasing number of countries are reporting seizures of synthetic NPS, with over 20 tons seized in 2015. The same study also highlights that the NPS market continues to be very dynamic and is characterized by the emergence of large numbers of new substances belonging to diverse chemical groups. Between 2009 and 2016, 106 countries and territories reported the emergence of 739 different NPS. Nonetheless, despite this large number of NPS present in drug markets, the overall size of the market for such substances is still relatively small when compared with other drug markets, like the cocaine market. (UNODC, 2017)
Since NPS are not controlled under the international drug control conventions, their legal status can differ widely from country to country. Many countries have implemented domestic legal responses to control certain NPS, and some have adopted controls on entire groups of NPS not explicitly and individually listed in the legislation, by using a generic approach of "chemical similarity" to a substance already under control by national law. At the international level, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs placed 17 new substances under international control in 2015-2016. (UNODC, 2017)
Research on drug trafficking at the international level has revealed that weak law enforcement capacity and corruption are instrumental in keeping the illicit market resilient. Corruption has been found to exist all along the drug supply chain, from production and trafficking to distribution, and it affects a wide range of institutions: eradication teams, law enforcement agencies, the criminal justice system as well as the health sector - for instance when users can get drugs through corrupt doctors and pharmacists (UNODC, 2017).
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have highlighted how corruption entrenches poverty by discouraging foreign investment and increasing the level of income inequality, which in turn is known to encourage drug consumption and fuel more corruption and instability. (World Bank Group, 2017) Furthermore, recent reports link a number of terrorist groups-such as the Taliban, insurgent movements and non-State armed groups to the drug trade. (UNODC, 2017)
Following the money trail of the drug market has proven to be one of the most effective approaches to combating drug trafficking. Drug trafficking is driven by profits, and identifying the flows related to those profits as well as the investment and laundering channels can function as effective counteraction. (GLOU40 Global, 2017; Soudijin, 2016; UNODC, 2015) Strengthening international cooperation in preventing and countering money-laundering also helps to reduce or eliminate the potential negative economic and social consequences of illicit activities.