Illegal drug trade

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These lollipops, above, were found to contain heroin when inspected by the US Drug Enforcement Administration

In jurisdictions where legislation restricts or prohibits the sale of certain popular drugs, it is common for an illegal drugs trade to develop. For some drugs, large-scale drug production is not usually located in developed countries where those drugs are illegal — rather, those drugs are often manufactured or harvested in developing nations where corruption and instability allows producers to operate with minimal interference from law enforcement agencies. Other "soft" drugs are often produced locally. Regardless of the type, high demand for illegal drugs on the black market leads to the formation of complex illegitimate production, smuggling, and distribution networks that span national borders and generate billions of dollars of revenue.

Illegal supply to consumers is generally via criminal drug dealers who purchase drugs in bulk or produce their own. Such dealers are stereotypically associated with organized crime syndicates, though in reality they often work freelance and bear no connection to organized criminal groups. The motivations for participation in the drug trade vary greatly depending on the specific drug. Dealers of "soft" drugs such as marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms often cite their motivations as the philanthropic desire to facilitate their recreational use, and tend to view drug prohibition laws as immoral restraints of personal civil liberties. In contrast, dealers of "hard" drugs such as heroin and cocaine which have a more restricted supply are often motivated by the incredible profits which can be made from trafficking in these drugs.


Soft drugs

"Soft" drugs are generally drugs that can be harvested and consumed in a potent form with little or no processing, and which are perceived to have less potential for causing physical or mental health damage to the user than "hard" drugs. Marijuana (cannabis) is the most commonly cited soft drug; psychedelic mushrooms also fall under this category. Opium is usually not characterized as a soft drug because of its high potential for addiction. Many jurisdictions, particularly Canada and many European states, have chosen to place a low law enforcement priority on the prosecution of cases involving personal-use quantities of soft drugs, rendering them quasi-legal (though still technically proscribed). They are sometimes also allowed for medical purposes with a doctor's prescription (see medical marijuana). In other jurisdictions, notably in most of the United States, soft drugs remain strictly illegal, and a black market has developed to supply them.

Many in the drugs field do not find the hard/soft drug distinction useful, acknowledging that it is the drug using behaviors that are the most important determinate of harm, not the choice of drug: all drugs can be harmful if misused. A more useful distinction ranks drugs according to their toxicity and addictive potential. Alcohol and tobacco rank high on this scale but are generally categorized as 'soft' due to their legal status, rather than harm potential.

Cannabis trade

The cannabis trade has several driving factors. As cannabis use is primarily recreational, some growers and dealers cite a desire to facilitate usage as their primary motivation. However, massive profits can also be made in the cannabis trade, and a great deal of cannabis trafficking is undoubtedly solely for this purpose. In jurisdictions where cannabis is quasi-legal (e.g. most of western Europe, Canada, and the Pacific coast of the United States), relaxed enforcement combined with a fiercely competitive supply results in lower market prices. By contrast, illegal market prices are much higher in areas where marijuana is still strictly proscribed (e.g. the eastern United States).


The wholesale market for cannabis exists on a variety of levels. Typically a "wholesale" purchase would consist of anything more than a quarter-pound (115g). However, legal definitions of "possession with intent to distribute" vary considerably between jurisdictions — in some places, much smaller quantities of marijuana or simply having marijuana in more than one container may constitute legal intent to distribute, with concomitantly increased legal penalties.

Due to the existence of different strains and different degrees of potency, along with varying degrees anti-drug law enforcement in different jurisdictions, the wholesale price of marijuana varies widely. For example, it is not unheard for low-potency Mexican "schwag" to be purchased in multi-ton quantities. These type of purchases are executed by large poly-drug criminal organizations that work with other national and international crime cartels. The importers of these drugs tend to be associated with violence and often import other drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In the United States, the Mexico-US border is usually the source for these large wholesale transactions.

Higher grade marijuana tends to trade on a much smaller scale due to the nature of the product — higher potency means that less must be smoked to achieve the desired effects. Where a pound of schwag can sell for $500 wholesale, high grade marijuana can fetch up to $4,400 per pound. High grade marijuana typically originates in small scale domestic indoor and outdoor growing operations. High grade marijuana is also imported into the United States on a small scale from Canada or in some rare instances from the tropics and Mexico. Of course, some zealous traffickers will bring multi-ton shipments of this product over the border as well. Many of these large traffickers are also associated with other much harder drugs, violence, and gangs. The typical indoor grower usually tends to be an otherwise law-abiding citizen who would not consider violence or strong arm tactics in marijuana dealing.

In the majority of cases, a local grower will give cannabis to "distributors". Each distributor will take between a quarter ounce and one pound and then divide it up and sell it to street-sellers. Because it costs very little to grow cannabis, and because the distributors are generally personal friends of the grower, any money made from this is almost 100% profit. Distributors can afford to distribute to sellers for as little as a dollar a gram, but typically charge half street value. The grower takes the most sizable cut of the money, but the particulars and percentages vary depending on local market conditions, the individuals involved, and whatever agreement they come to. It is not unheard of for the grower to keep all the monetary profit and pay his distributors in cannabis (although in this case the assumption often exists that the distributors are keeping a small amount of the money for themselves without the grower's direct knowledge).

Law enforcement attention to these "lesser" wholesaling transactions is typically reduced; most law enforcement concern is over large-scale wholesaling and cartels.

Street selling

Selling can be somewhat profitable. A typical dealer will purchase an ounce (28 grams) or more and repackage it into 1.5 gram sacks called "dubs" for resale at $20 each. Unscrupulous dealers may resort to a variety of methods to increase their profits:

  • Overcharging inexperienced buyers
  • Advertising a higher amount of "bud" than is actually contained in each sack
  • Packaging the cannabis "bud" in with "shake" (stems and leaves) to increase the weight of each package

Such mark-ups generally only work in low-availability areas or on those who are inexperienced at purchasing cannabis. More "seasoned" buyers would never, for instance, pay $20 for a single gram of cannabis. Local market conditions vary significantly with local supply and demand, and with the degree of local law enforcement attention to cannabis trafficking.


Certain strains of cannabis that are unique to a particular area, such as Maui-wowie, hula-bud, Thai-sticks, yellow cab, or Alaskan thunderfuck may be shipped great distances due to popularity and demand.

On the United States' Pacific coast, a cannabis "super highway" of sorts exists, along which most exotic strains are traded, anti-cannabis laws are relatively relaxed or aren't as actively enforced, and large numbers of growers reside.

At the northernmost end of this "highway" is Alaska, where northern lights and Alaskan thunderfuck are produced. Further south is British Columbia, home of the famous BC bud, which comes in a wide array of qualities and forms, the most desired of which is the hydrochronic, or hydroponically grown chronic. South of British Columbia is Washington, which is home of the annual Hempfest, has an extremely high number of local growers, and imports massive quantities of hydrochronic from British Columbia, Maui-wowie and hula-bud from Hawaii, Thai-sticks from Thailand, yellow cab from Idaho, northern lights and thunderfuck from Alaska via British Columbia, and red-hair bud from southern Mexico via California and Oregon. Washington is also famous for its chemo-bud grown at the University of Washington, including the elusive (and possibly non-existent) G-13. South of Washington is California, where consumption of Cannabis is likely as high (per-capita) as in Washington, and is thus a major player in cannabis trade. At the southernmost end is Mexico, which, although known mainly for its low-quality "dirt weed", facilitates the trade of highly potent strains from southern Mexico and Central America into the United States.

Along this "super highway", major cities such as Vancouver, BC, Tacoma, San Francisco, and Los Angeles offer the lowest prices for the greatest quantities of cannabis, whilst Tacoma, San Francisco, and L.A. offer the greatest variety of exotic strains. These exotic strains become increasingly rare and expensive when one moves into the smaller surrounding towns. Away from the west coast as a whole, the cost of even low-quality or "schwag" cannabis may be double what one would pay for good-quality cannabis in, for instance, Washington.

High-demand strains

Some greatly sought-after (and often more expensive) strains of Cannabis include Alaskan thunderfuck, BC bud, chemo-bud, G-13, hula-bud, hydrochronic, Maui-wowie, mystic creeper, northern lights, popcorn bud, purple kush, Thai-sticks, white rhino, and yellow cab.

Trade jargon

  • Death Weed refers to extremely potent Cannabis.
  • The Kill also refers to highly potent Cannabis, though not necessarily as potent as "The Death Weed".
  • Chronic refers to Cannabis which is highly potent but not unusually so. In other words, the highest quality one can find on a semi-regular basis for roughly the same cost as mid-grade Cannabis. Chronic can also be Cannabis with a little bit of Cocaine on top. This causes the same effects as Crack but on a much lighter scale.
  • Bud simply refers to the buds of the Cannabis plant. Bud may be high or low quality depending on several factors, not the least of which is sex (female buds are far, far more potent than the weaker and less tasty male buds).
  • Shake refers to the leaves of the Cannabis plant, which are impotent. "Shake" also refers to small pieces of cannabis that have flaked off of buds ("bud shake" is just as potent as buds, contrary to popular belief).
  • Schwag refers to low-quality bud. Often dry and brownish in color rather than lush and green (however, looks can be deceiving).
  • Dirt Weed often refers to brown, withered looking buds which are usually impotent, although potent "dirt weed" is not completely unheard of. This term is seldom used synonymously with "outdoor" (see below).
  • Indoor is Cannabis grown indoors. Sometimes pronounced "indoe", sounding much like the Latin endo, which has a similar meaning when spoken as "indoe-weed". This term generally does not include hydroponically grown Cannabis, which is in a class of its own. Indoor grown Cannabis is almost always better than outdoor because of the protection it gets inside.
  • Outdoor, sometimes pronounced "outdoe" or instead called exo (to contrast with endo), is Cannabis that has been grown outdoors.

Mushroom trade

To be written

Tobacco trade

The illegal trade of tobacco is motivated primarily by increasingly heavy taxation, and to a lesser extent by smoking bans in public places. When tobacco products such as name-brand cigarettes are traded illegally, the cost is as little as one third that of retail price due to the lack of taxes being piled on as the product is sold from manufacturer to buyer to retailer. Meanwhile, the sale of tobacco, legal or not, seems motivated almost entirely by addiction, with social/recreational motives being the cause of initial consumption.

Hard drugs

The term 'hard drugs' is usually used to refer to heroin and cocaine, the concentrated pharmaceutical preparations of naturally occurring opium poppies and coca plant respectively. These drugs are associated with the highly visible and chaotic patterns of use, often associated with criminality, that shape the stereotypical media portrayal of the 'junkie' or 'crack head'. These drugs, when in their natural forms (opium - smoked or consumed as tea, and coca leaf - chewed or consumed as tea), are rarely if ever associated with such behavior. Both heroin and cocaine are also used extensively in the medical field as powerful pain killers.

The illegal supply of these so called hard drugs is driven mainly by the economics of drug prohibition, with huge profit margins available due to the collision of high demand for the drugs with harsh laws that attempt to prohibit their supply and use. The vast profits on offer mean that the trade is run by highly organized and often violent criminal organizations.

LSD trade

LSD (also known as Acid) is a highly potent hallucinogen which is synthesized artificially. The availability of LSD in America dropped sharply circa 2000, when two distributors alleged by the government to have been manufacturing 95% of all LSD available in America were captured (see LSD).

Cocaine trade

Because of the extensive processing it undergoes during preparation and its highly addictive nature, cocaine is generally treated as a hard drug, with severe penalties for possession and trafficking. Demand remains high, and consequently black market cocaine is quite expensive. Unprocessed cocaine, such as coca leaves is occasionally bought and sold, but this is exceedingly rare as it is much easier and more profitable to conceal and smuggle the concentrated processed form. Therefore, powdered cocaine (its usual form) is described here.

Most cocaine is smuggled in large quantities in trucks, boats, or small airplanes. Smaller gangs will often send out a mule, often a young woman, with kilos of cocaine strapped to her waist or legs or hidden in her bags. If she gets through without being caught, the gangs will reap most of the profits. If she is caught however, gangs will sever all links and she will usually stand trial for trafficking by herself.

Colombia still produces around 75% of the world's cocaine.

Harvesting & processing

Cocaine comes from the coca plant. The leaves are removed from the plants and dried, then crushed into a paste, commonly using cement mix (containing sodium carbonate), lime and water. This then allows extraction of the cocaine alkaloid into kerosene. The resulting water immiscible solvent (kerosene) acts to extract water insoluble cocaine alkaloids from the mixture. The plant leaves are agitated by stomping on them or, more recently, by using an agitation machine. The Cocaine alkaloids and kerosene will separate from the water and leaves, and then need to be strained.

The alkaloids must be extracted from the kerosene by adding a dilute hydrochloric or sulfuric acid mix then filtered again. Potassium permanganate is added then the mix is let stand for 4-6 hours. The paste is further filtered and ammonia added. A precipitate will be formed. This is referred to as Cocaine Base.

The base must be dried and converted to cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) by soaking it in Acetone and filtering it. Added diluted Hydrochloric acid or Ether (cutting) causes a precipitate to form which is then dried under heat lamps, resulting in pure cocaine hydrochloride.


Organized criminal gangs operating on a large scale dominate the cocaine trade. Most cocaine is grown and processed in South America, particularly in Colombia and Peru, and smuggled into the United States and Europe, where it is sold at huge markups.

Cutting & distributing

To be written

Crack trade

Crack is more common in poorer communities. This is because Crack is a much more dangerous form of Cocaine that is less expensive and gives a more palpable high, which lasts for short bursts. It is also one of the most addictive drugs in existence. It is associated with street gangs that distribute in lower class areas, the money earned from its sale is used for, but not limited to, the following: drug-wars, illegal firearms, and turf-wars.


To be written

Street selling

To be written

Heroin and opium trade

Opium is the dried latex resin of the opium poppy. Most of the world's illegal opium has been grown in Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle region of southeast Asia for a long time. Although, in recent years, a growing amount comes from Latin America, particularly from Mexico and Colombia (in this latter country it has displaced to some extent cocaine trade because it is easier to refine into a marketable product, heroin).

Legal production of opium the for the variety of opiate-based products used by the medical market is more than 50% of global opium production and takes place mostly in Tasmania and India. In these countries, it is used strictly natural form, which contains a number of active ingredients. It is smoked, eaten, or prepared as a drink to produce the opiate effects. It is also widely used as local medicine in its native countries; the resin requires minimal processing involving boiling in water, filtering, and drying. Illicit trade in opium is relatively rare, since major smuggling organizations prefer to further refine opium into heroin. A given quantity of heroin is worth much more than an equivalent amount of opium; therefore trade in opium is comparatively rare, since heroin is much more profitable.

Heroin is manufactured through the chemical processing of opium, and smuggled into the United States and Europe. Purity levels vary greatly by region with, for the most part, Northeastern cities having the most pure heroin in America. According to a recently released report by the DEA, Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey have the purest street grade heroin in the country.

Cutting & distributing

To be written

Methamphetamine trade

To be written

Manufacturing & wholesaling

To be written

Cutting & distributing

To be written

Crystal methamphetamine

To be written


To be written

The illegal drug trade and crime

Because of physical dependence, the high cost of illegal addictive drugs is one of the major causes of crime. Some estimates placed the value of the global trade in illegal drugs at around four hundred billion U.S. dollars in the year 2000.

Major consumer countries include the United States and European nations, although consumption is world-wide.

As with legal commerce, the illegal drug trade is multi-layered and often multi-national, with layers of manufacturers, processors, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. Financing is also important, generally involving money laundering to hide the source of the illegal profits. All of these are made more complex by their illegality, but the normal laws of economics still apply, with the efforts of law enforcement regarded by the drug trade as an extra business cost.

The drug trade is a very fragmented industry with the most popular product, cannabis, being grown locally by many individuals with little collaboration. Similarly, drugs like LSD with very low profit margins are sold more for philanthropic reasons than for profit. The main organized drug cartels deal with cocaine, heroin, and MDMA, and it is these that are the primary focus of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Largely manufactured drugs also induce the foundation of satellite organizations that supply some of the needed chemical precursors. In places where alcohol is illegal, such as Saudi Arabia, it may also be the subject of illegal trading. In the United States during Prohibition, trade in alcohol was dominated by the Cosa Nostra.

Some prescription drugs are also available by illegal means, eliminating the need to manufacture and process the drugs. Prescription opiates for example, are sometimes much stronger than heroin found on the street. They are sold primarily via stolen or unscrupulous prescriptions sold by illegitimate medical practices and occasionally from Internet sale. However, it is much easier to control traffic in prescription drugs than in illegal drugs because the source can often be readily found and neutralized.

Legal Drugs like tobacco can be the subject of smuggling and illegal trading if the taxes are high enough to make it profitable.

Because disputes cannot be resolved through legal means, participants at every level of the illegal drugs industry are liable to compete with one another through violence. Some of the largest and most violent drug trafficking organizations are known as drug cartels. For this (and other reasons, namely the inability for governments to control, regulate and tax distribution), many have argued that the illegality of popular drugs worsens the problems around these substances.

The most well known recent groups were the Cali and Medellin cartels in Colombia and the Juarez, Tijuana and Tamaulipas cartels in Mexico.

Manufacturing and processing

Illegal drugs can be broken down into two major classes: those extracted from plants, and those synthesized from chemical precursors. For the first class, such as marijuana and cocaine, the growing area is important, and substantial farming is needed for mass production. For the second class, such as MDMA and methamphetamine, access to chemical precursors is most important.

Major drug farming and manufacturing countries include

Synthetic illegal drugs can either be manufactured in the country of consumption, or abroad.

For the most part, the manufacturing of botanically-based drugs consists of several layers which may be isolated or conglomerated: growing and harvesting, initial botanical processing, chemical processing, and final processing.

The initial botanical processing prepares the plant for chemical processing, by cutting, drying if applicable, separating parts with a low concentration, and etc. The chemical processing extracts the drug, and the final processing sizes it, provides assurance of quality, packages it, and may convert it to another form (such as crack from cocaine).

Of course, there is a lot of transportation that goes into it, as well. The botanical extracts must be conveyed to the...

Distribution and wholesaling

There are two primary means of distribution: a hierarchy and a hub-and-spoke layout. A hierarchical arrangement includes the manufacturer who uses his own men to smuggle, wholesale and store, and distribute the narcotics. A hub-and-spoke layout takes advantage of local gangs and other localized criminal organizations. The cartel is at the center, with satellite organizations that may provide certain services to the manufacturer, and then there is a plurality of distinct groups, each with its own chain.

Smuggling is typically accomplished via small boats and yachts, air vehicles, and by gangs paid with a chunk of the merchandise.

Wholesalers routinely accept the materials from the smugglers (often more than one and of varying types), cut it, and sell it to the distribution chain or chains. For the most part, wholesalers are not individual people. It is typically an expansional endeavor by already-established rogue enterprises, especially Mafias and, rarely, gangs. The more experienced instances may re-manufacture the wares to increase (or decrease, because profit comes from cutting) the purity, mixing it (a few may fabricate amalgamated, specialty products at fleeced prices), or altering the chemical composition of the material (such as freebasing cocaine). Wholesalers may also manufacture and disseminate general contraband, including non-narcotic controlled substances (like date rape drugs), paraphernalia, and any panoptic, high-demand item that they may receive.

Distribution may traverse a selectively chosen group of cartel employees who purchase from a wholesaler and utilize a prominent population of "mules," or it may encompass a heavy chain of users who are selling to finance their own use.

  • to be written -- topics include:
  • smuggling
  • →opium smuggling against laws of China in 19th century, w/regard to Howqua, Forbes family, Cabot, Perkins family, Russell and Company, Opium War
  • security problems similar to distribution of other high-value materials
  • and hence gang-on-gang crime

Retail selling

"Street" selling is the bottom of the chain and can be accomplished through purchasing from prostitutes, through cloaked retail stores or refuse houses for users in the act located in red-light districts which often also deal in paraphernalia, dealers marketing merriment at night clubs and other events, or directly from dealers who have purposefully engaged adolescents (typically). Many users sell in order to fund their own drug use. Although most are in it for the monetary outcome, some view narcotics dispensing and consumption as a means of insurrection and orchestrate it for that cacoethes. They refrain from intensive processing and abstain from umpteen 'business' practices. Although most dealers market to a changeless customer base, these mavericks may be overly advertised on hacker/phreaker/drug/etc. forums and between friends and cohorts. In an effort to crack down on sales to children and adolescents, many US states now have laws on their books that make the penalty for selling drugs more severe if the sale occurs within a short distance from the nearest school; in conjunction with these laws, road signs marked "Drug Free School Zone" have been erected, warning those concerned where the area of enhanced penalties begins.

See also

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