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Drug Trade

A. U.N. World Drug Report 2006
B. White House Drug Control Strategy
C. How Goes the "War on Drugs"? An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy
Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Despite concerted efforts by the United States, the United Nations, and the vast majority of states in the international system over the course of the 20th century, illegal drugs remain a major problem with numerous deleterious effects on security, governance, economies, international relations, and individual lives1. U.S. efforts in the "War on Drugs" (a somewhat misleading and dated term that endures in public discourse) have involved a variety of strategies centered largely on one goal: reducing the number of users of illegal drugs, especially opiates and cocaine, the two most dangerous and lucrative substances. To achieve this objective, the United States has relied on a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Enforcement (targeting producers, smugglers, dealers, and users)

  2. Treatment (targeting heavy uses)

  3. Educational programs (targeting mainly youth)

A recent RAND study notes that "in fiscal year 2003, for example, 53 percent of the president's requested drug control budget was for enforcement, 29 percent for treatment, and 18 percent for prevention."2 While the wisdom of the entire "War on Drugs" effort remains a hot-button issue, most policymakers focus on pursuing more effective strategies to lower drug use, trafficking, and production, and these debates often come back to disagreements over the allocation of resources among these three areas.

The "War on Drugs" has received a small shot in the arm from the initiation of the "War on Terror," as there is increasing evidence that numerous groups considered to be terrorists by the United States rely on the drug trade for a significant portion of their funding. The push to control illegal immigration into this country has provided supporters of the "War on Drugs" with further rhetorical ammunition, as a secure border supposedly does a better job of keeping out illegal immigrants, terrorists, and drugs alike. However, these new set of considerations do not make the job of reducing drug use and production any easier. There is no silver bullet to this problem: the drug trade thrives in areas with little state control, powerful non-state actors, and economic hopelessness. History has shown that reversing any one of those three trends is challenging enough. Eliminating all of them is the work of multiple generations, and direct action in projects like the "War on Drugs" is only one part of the solution.

To shift the debate from fiery rhetoric to clear-eyed assessment, we will focus here on providing evidence pertaining to the following questions:

  1. Where are the major sources of supply and demand for the most lucrative drugs/drug components?

  2. What are the steps between production and consumption and where do they largely occur?

  3. What is the U.S. doing in response to the drug trade at home and abroad and why?

A. U.N. World Drug Report 200Y   



  • The 2006 United Nations World Drug Report (UNWDR) noted that "The illicit drug problem has three main elements: cultivation and production; trafficking and retailing; and consumption and abuse. We do not know as much as we would like about the middle link of this chain as the drug trade is notoriously hard to monitor. But, as this report shows, we do know a lot about the beginning and the end of the chain and can confidently make two points: (1) There is less land under coca and opium cultivation today than a few years ago, and significantly less than a century ago; (2) The severity of drug addiction has been contained. The number of addicts, especially those dependent on cocaine and heroin, has declined massively over the last century and, worldwide, has remained stable in the past few years."

  • The 2007 Report claims, "The world's drug problem is being contained. In 2005/06, the global markets for the main illicit drugs - the opiates, cocaine, cannabis, and amphetamine-type stimulants - remained largely stable." It is far from clear, however 1) to what extent this stabilization is the result of UN efforts 2) whether this stabilization represents significant good or bad news 3) whether those fighting the "War on Drugs" can hope for much more than global stabilization or changes at the margins of current levels of drug cultivation, production, and use.


  • In terms of users, the UNWDR estimates that 5% of the global population between ages 15 and 64 uses drugs at least one each year. Of this 5%, ~2.7% use them regularly (once a month) and 0.6% are addicts or "problem users"3

  • Approximately 28% of the world's adult population is estimated to use tobacco, as compared to 4% for cannabis and 1 per cent for Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), cocaine and opiates combined4


  • The 2007 UNWDR holds that "Drug addiction is an illness that can be prevented and treated. Early detection, greater prevention efforts, better treatment of addiction, and integration of drug treatment into public health and social services programs, can free people from the nightmare of addiction."5

  • Demand is difficult to estimate, but there are two main ways that provide some traction
    • Expert analysis
      • Experts generally agree that cannabis and ATS demand rising, cocaine demand falling in America and rising in Europe, opiates rising slowly globally

    • Treatment levels
      See Figure 1.
          • Data on routes difficult to reliably attain, but UNWDR claims that there are three major routes for opiates (heroin, morphine, opium).

            • Afghanistan to neighboring countries, the Middle East and Europe

            • Myanmar/Lao PDR to neighboring countries in South-East Asia, (notably China) and to

              Oceania (mainly Australia)

            • Latin America (Mexico, Colombia and Peru) to North America (notably USA)

            • See Figure 2

            • The 2007 UNWDR notes that there is increasing evidence of cross-regional trafficking, particularly from Afghanistan to North America.

        • Afghanistan

          • Afghanistan has cemented its place at the center of the global drug trade, producing 92% of the world's opium production in 2006. Global opium production soared to a new all-time high, 6,600 metric tons, with the lion's share (82%) again coming from Afghanistan.

          • Afghanistan is a land-locked country in central Asia with a population of 30 million, over half of whom live in poverty.6 The country has a nascent but meager army and no air force or navy to speak of, and the United Nations estimates that opium production accounted for 46% of Afghanistan's diminutive GDP in 2006.

            • See Figure 5 for Afghanistan drug survey

          • See Afghanistan section for in-depth information on military, political, and economic developments in Afghanistan involving the US, UN, and NATO

          • Levels of opium cultivation

            • After small decreases in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2005 (the first decreases since 2001), poppy cultivation exploded in 2006, from 104,000 to 165,000 hectares, an increase of 59% in what was already the world's leading poppy producer.7 This massive increase occurred despite a 210% increase in eradicated poppy fields, from 5,000 to 15,300 hectares. Production of opium experienced a similar explosion, from 4,100 to 6,100 metric tons

            • A major problem for the US, NATO, and the UN in their attempts to reduce poppy cultivation: the monetary yield from a hectare of opium is nearly ten times that of a hectare of wheat8

            • Production is increasing in southern provinces, decreasing in areas around Kabul, indicating that government control of regions may play significant role in discouraging poppy cultivation

              • See Figure 5 and Figure 6 on regional distribution of cultivation

            • This development is of particular interest to the U.S., since the resurgence of the Taliban in the south in 2006-2007 seems to have been fueled at least in part by an alliance with the poppy traffickers9

            • Fred Kaplan correctly notes that the Taliban never really left the south, it was the coalition that did after OEF wound down, and their return to the region has sparked clashes with the Taliban10

          • Vanda Felbab-Brown's Audit of the Conventional Wisdom, "A Better Strategy Against Narcoterrorism" makes important suggestions for a U.S. counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan

          Southeast Asia: A success story (?)

          • The 2006 UNWDR stated, "

            Sustained progress has been made by the Governments of Myanmar and Lao PDR in addressing illicit opium poppy cultivation. In 2005, Myanmar achieved a further reduction of the total area under cultivation, by 26 per cent to 32,800 hectares. In Lao PDR, cultivation dropped by an impressive 72 per cent, to 1,800 hectares. With an estimated opium production of only 14 metric tons, the country is on the verge of becoming opium poppy free. Since 1998, the year of the General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, opium poppy cultivation in these two South-East Asian countries has been reduced by 78 per cent. Sustaining these remarkable achievements may, however, largely depend on the availability of socio-economic alternatives for the farmers who have given up a traditional source of their livelihood. This makes the provision of development assistance to these communities both a humanitarian and a strategic necessity.


          • The 2007 UNWDR noted further gains, "Poppy cultivation in South-East Asia is down by more than 85 per cent over the last decade. Between 2005 and 2006 alone, poppy cultivation in South East Asia declined from 35,000 hectares to 24,000 hectares."11

          • Figure 3 shows this decrease alongside the growing problem in Afghanistan

          • Figure 7 shows the decrease in hard figures

          • However, it is unclear what the significance of Southeast Asia's declining drug production means on a global scale. The UNWDR 2007 notes, "Although opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased massively in 2006, the global area under illicit poppy cultivation was still 10 per cent lower in 2006 than in 2000, due to reduction in South-East Asia. But despite the reduction in the area under cultivation, potential heroin production is up, because Afghan fields are more productive than fields in South-East Asia. In 2006, global opium production soared to a new record high of 6,610 metric tons, a 43 per cent increase over 2005 (italics added)." One must question to what extent global drug production resembles a shell game in which success in decreasing cultivation and production in one area is often offset by failure to do so in another. Furthermore, better research is needed to identify the reasons behind the decrease in drug production in Southeast Asia.

        Coca, Cocaine

        • The 2007 UNWDR claims that "Supply stability has been achieved only through intensive eradication efforts, especially in Colombia. The area under coca cultivation fell by 29 per cent between 2000-2006, including a 52 per cent reduction in the area under coca cultivation in Colombia."

        • Preliminary figures suggest that the total area under coca cultivation remained stable in 2005 and 2006. Thus the area under coca cultivation (156,900 hectares) was below the peak levels recorded in 2000 (221,300 hectares). Most coca continues to be cultivated in Colombia (54 per cent), followed by Peru (30 per cent) and Bolivia (16 per cent)

          • see Figure 8

        • However, production of cocaine has held steady or increased, even since the peak levels of cultivation in 2000. Therefore, the UN report's focus on eradication of coca fields seems a bit skewed, since producers have been able to produce at high rates despite the UN's efforts, which would seem to bring into question the effectiveness of the entire endeavor

          • See Figure 11

        • There are two main trafficking routes for cocaine:

          • From the Andean region, notably Colombia, to the United States (often via Mexico)

          • From the Andean region to Europe (via the Caribbean and, increasingly, via Africa)

          • see Figure 9


          • Despite a decrease in the amount of coca produced since 2001, Columbia remains the largest cultivator and producer of coca in the world

            • See Figure 10, Figure 11

          • North America is #1 destination for shipments of cocaine, most of which come to the U.S. through Mexico

            • Mexico estimates that 15% comes to the country by air, 30% by land, and 55% by sea, often in legitimate trading vessels

          • Figure 12 shows how even with improved eradication methods, overall supply of cocaine can still remain stable; variegated methods are needed

      B. White House National Drug Control Strategy 2007

      • The National Drug Control Strategy (NDCS) touts progress amongst youth drug use on America: "Using the category of past-month drug use as a benchmark, the Administration sought to reduce youth drug use by 10 percent within 2 years, and by 25 percent within 5 years. Actual youth use declined by 11 percent within the first 2 years, and now, in the fifth year, youth use has declined an astonishing 23.2 percent-just 1.8 percentage points short of the 25 percent goal." (p. 1)

      • The White House has employed a three-pronged strategy

        • Education and Community Action (drug-testing in school and the workplace, educational programs about the perils of drug use)

        • Intervention and Healing (screening and treatment, including faith-based treatment)

        • Disrupting the Market for Illicit Drugs (crop eradication, seizures, law enforcement)

      • The NDCS claims that "In Colombia, for example, drug market disruption programs have assisted the government in its remarkable efforts to transform a nation once under siege by drug traffickers and narco-terrorists. Similarly, U.S. and allied nation initiatives targeting the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan have yielded results in provinces where local leaders have demonstrated willingness to confront drug traffickers." (p.29)

        • Of course, the limits of these claims are revealed when contrasted with the UN World Drug Report, which demonstrates massive increases in opium production in Afghanistan during the time of the U.S.'s involvement, and increases or stability in production in Columbia.

      • The role of "War on Drugs" in the "War on Terror," according to the 2006 NDCS

        • "In addition to all the other nefarious and debilitating consequences of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, robust drug production contributes to an environment of corruption and of political and economic instability that can foster insurgent and terrorist organizations, thus threatening the democratically elected Afghan Government. The strategy for attacking the economic basis of the drug trade in Afghanistan reinforces other priorities in the US Global War on Terror. We are committed to a counternarcotics strategy that aims to enhance stability in this fledgling democracy by attacking a source of financial and political support for terrorist organizations that threaten the United States and our allies"12

        • The major ways by which the "War on Drugs" affects national security: it targets and disrupts funding of terrorist groups, especially in Colombia and Afghanistan 13

        • Strengthening the border also helps protect against influx of terrorists, WMD, illegal immigrants14

      C. How Goes the "War on Drugs"? An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy

      By Jonathan P. Caulkins, Peter Reuter, Martin Y. Iguchi, James Chiesa

      • Progress (or lack thereof) in the War on Drugs

        • It is a Mixed record; the main U.S. goal is to reduce drug use over time

          • "The current administration's strategy places the emphasis on measures of use alone. It sets two two-year goals: a 10 percent reduction in current use by adolescents (relative to use in 2000-2001) and the same for adults (relative to use in 2002). Two analogous five-year goals seek 25 percent reductions." (p. 4)

        • Despite U.S. efforts, prices of cocaine and heroin have steadily gone down over the past two decades, suggesting a greater supply (although surveys show fewer users over the same period) (p. 7)

        • Public perception of the success of the drug war is not positive: "In March 2001, 74 percent of adult Americans thought the United States was losing the drug war." (p. 27)

        • "The war on drugs has been fought through a mix of strategies, notably:

          • enforcement, against producers (including those overseas), smugglers, dealers at various levels in U.S. drug markets, and users

          • treatment of heavy users, typically through programs involving many months of counseling

          • educational campaigns against drug use, often embodied either in school curricula or in media advertising

            • To date, the federal anti-drug budget has been tilted toward enforcement. In fiscal year 2003, for example, 53 percent of the president's requested drug control budget was for enforcement, 29 percent for treatment, and 18 percent for prevention." (15-16)

              • See Figure 13

      Maps, Tables

      Figure 1: Map on Main Problem Drugs (based on treatment demand)

      Click to enlarge
      UNWDR, p. 9

      Figure 2: Seizures and Trafficking Routes (Heroin and Morphine)

      Click to enlarge
      UNWDR, p. 9

      Figure 3: Global Opium Poppy Cultivation, 1990-2006

      Click to enlarge
      UNWDR, p. 9

      Figure 4: Afghanistan 2006 Fact Sheet

      Click to enlarge
      UNWDR 2007, p. 195,, p. 9

      Figure 5: Map of Afghanistan Poppy Cultivation 2006

      Click to enlarge
      UNWDR 2007, p. 200,, p. 9

      Figure 6: Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan by Region

      Click to enlarge
      2007, p. 196,, p. 9

      Figure 7: Measurable Success in Southeast Asia

      Click to enlarge
      2006, p.12, p. 9

      Figure 8: Coca Cultivation in the Andes

      Click to enlarge
      2006, 16,, p. 9

      Figure 9: Coca Seizures, Trafficking Routes

      Click to enlarge
      2007, p. 81,, p. 9

      Figure 10: Coca Cultivation in Columbia

      Click to enlarge
      2007, p. 206,, p. 9

      Figure 11: Global Cocaine Production, 1990-2006

      Click to enlarge
      2007, p. 66,, p. 9

      Figure 12: Global Supply of Cocaine, 1995-2005

      Click to enlarge
      2007, p. 78,, p. 9

      Figure 13: Budget Considerations for U.S. Strategy in the War on Drugs

      Figure 13: Budget Considerations for U.S. Strategy in the War on Drugs


      1. The focus here will be on drugs whose use is illegal in the United States, recognizing the fact that tobacco, alcohol, and other legal drugs impose costs on society that collectively far outweigh those under consideration here.

      2. "How Goes the 'War on Drugs'? An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy" by Jonathan P. Caulkins, Peter Reuter, Martin Y. Iguchi, James Chiesa, 15-16, 2005/RAND_OP121.pdf.

      3. United Nations World Drug Report 2007, 9 /wdr07/WDR_2007.pdf.

      4. Ibid, 30.

      5. Ibid, 2.

      6. United Nations Development Program, "State Building and Government Support Programme: Afghanistan," April 5, 2006, archives/key_docs/docs/factsheets/ sbgs/sbgs_factsheet_05_04_06.pdf

      7. United Nations 2007 World Drug Report, WDR_2007_3.1.1_afghanistan.pdf.

      8. United Nations World Drug Report 2007, 195, research/wdr07/WDR_2007.pdf

      9. Fred Kaplan, "Can Freedom and Opium Coexist? Winning Afghan Hearts and Minds One Poppy Farmer at a Time," Slate, June 21, 2006,

      10. Pamela Constable, More Than 100 Afghan Rebels Killed in Southern Provinces," Washington Post, June 25, 2006, article/2006/06/24/AR2006062401003.html

      11. Ibid.

      12. United Nations World Drug Report 2007, 10, research/wdr07/WDR_2007.pdf

      13. The White House National Drug Control Strategy 2006, 38, policy/ndcs06/ndcs06.pdf

      14. Ibid., 19, 38.

      15. Ibid., 35.

      Bibliography/Recommended Reading

      Bertram, Eva, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas, Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

      Kleiman, Mark A. R., Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, New York: Basic Books, 1992.

      MacCoun, Robert J., and Peter Reuter, Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

      Manski, Charles F., John V. Pepper, and Carol V. Petrie, eds., Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001,

      Musto, David F., The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, 3rd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

      United Nations 2006 World Drug Report, UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Vol.1 and Vol. 2, 212,

        • UN World Drug Report offers numerous facts and figures on Afghanistan's massive drug problem
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