I can’t believe the professor encouraged me to write on this topic

Powder Road: a primer in drug trafficking


“Always there is more”—The Greek


Drugs are a commodity, like many others, in that they are produced, distributed, and sold—by individuals or corporations—to make a profit. Like many other products, the people at the beginning and the end of the distribution chain are the people making the least amount of money, and yet have the largest amount of risk. The Afghani opium farmer, for instance, does not make very much money, but grows opium anyway—either because it is still the most profitable crop for him personally, or a local warlord has a gun to his head.  On the opposite end, the street-level dealer who sells heroin to his consumers also makes very little money, and generally ends up dead or in jail.

            It’s intriguing to see how much the grower and the dealer have in common, which prompts the question “where does all the money go?”  In the international drug trade, it’s the middleman who gets rich and has the least risk. The scope of this study will be limited to the traffic of morphine and cocoa-based products, such as heroin and cocaine, since, currently, most of the other vast spectrum of types of drugs—for example, marijuana and methamphetamines—are produced locally or, at least, within the borders of the United States.  Cocaine and heroin, however, originate in South America and the Middle East, and make a long and elaborate journey on their way to the street corner. The risks and demand for these drugs allow for an extraordinary mark-up at all stages of the distribution chain.

It’s important to understand how this sort of business works, so as not to mistakenly place the blame for drug abuse and related crimes on the street dealers or their third-world counterparts.

The farmer is most often a victim of his circumstances because he does not have the geographic mobility to do anything else. In the areas where poppies and cocoa are grown, the militias are the law, and the drug cartels pay the militias. Generally, this means that growing something other than what the cartels want is not a smart thing to do. It can also be considered a lethal move because a farmer growing anything else may not provide enough crop (read: money) for his survival. This is the only major advantage the farmer has over the street dealer—he’s not nearly as likely to be killed by a rival, or jailed, because he is insulated and protected by the militias, as well as the police, who incidentally are also being paid by the drug cartels (McCoy p.31).

The farmer starts the process by planting Coca or Poppies in areas of the world where the official laws of the country are not enforced. Columbia and Afghanistan are the two largest suppliers of cocaine and heroin with about three quarters of the world’s cocaine production coming from Columbia (NDIC) and 87% of the world’s heroin coming from Afghanistan (Nazemroaya).  Despite state- and internationally- sponsored programs aimed at eradicating supply, the supply has not been significantly affected. We can see a clear parallel between the street-level enforcement and the supply reduction methods used internationally. Local narcotics teams may shake down a corner and take a small amount of drugs off the street as UN planes spray a poppy field with poison. Despite these hands-on approaches, neither method works to significantly decrease the consumption, or supply, of drugs.


            After the harvest, the unrefined product is transported to a suitable refining area by smugglers. Drug-smuggling operations are becoming more vertically integrated and, as a result, the distribution chain has become harder for law enforcement to infiltrate, and thus the quality of product has increased (CS). The refinement process generally occurs in semi-industrialized regions, due to the large amount of chemicals and laboratory instruments that are necessary. These areas tend to be in Eastern Europe and Mexico, as both have fairly easily-bribed public officials and are also close to the consumer markets. Smuggling the product across the border is the most dangerous aspect, with respect to evading authorities. If done successfully, however, it can also be the most financially rewarding (CS). The methods used in smuggling are numerous and often very intricate, but the most common and effective method is shipping as legitimate cargo, using a front company.

            Once the cocaine and heroin are inside the United States, they are generally wholesaled to independent interstate smugglers who often have gang connections to the retailers in a given market. It is important to understand that the structure of a drug-trafficking organization is not like the traditional mafia, with a pyramid hierarchy—until the product reaches the street, the distributors operate in independent cells that are ignorant of the higher-ups (CS). This limits the potential for police investigations because no one has the ability to make a deal with anyone regarding information they simply do not have.

These illegal drugs are usually purchased by the head of a localized gang that in turn distributes to the consumer. These gangs can be independent, low-level organizations, but more often than not are affiliated with a national gang, such as the Bloods, the Crips, MS-13, or the Aryan Nation. This happens oftentimes simply because the members of the gang are close-knit or related to each other (Jacobs p.31).

            Once the product is at this level, the pure product is generally diluted to a less-potent form, in order to increase profit, and then is distributed to the street corner dealer. These “cutting” agents can be any number of benign or harmful substances, and are often used liberally because the demand is completely inelastic. The dealer is then responsible for the day-to-day retail drug business.

            The organization of the street operation is important to understand because it is effective in theory, and gives the operators a sense of progress. A young kid may start off as a lookout, be promoted to handling drugs, and eventually might get to run his own operation if his superior sees him as competent. The extensive use of minors contributes to the effectiveness of this type of operation, mainly because they can not be punished like an adult and, as such, are less likely to cave to police pressure (Bourgois p.194). Other ways the street organizations effectively protect their players are with quick, helpful handouts, such as bail money and lawyers fees. There is also the concern for physical safety, its subsequent protection, and its use as a threat, that comes along with being part of a gang.


People sell drugs for many reasons, but in low-income ethnic neighborhoods, there are several factors that weigh in heavily. The first is simply the desire to make quick, easy money. On the surface it seems that street dealers are making significant amounts of cash, and are more than happy to spend it. This is not the reality, however—most of that easy cash goes to superiors, leaving a very small percentage to the street dealers.  In addition, the conspicuous-consumption dealers engage in to maintain street respect often leaves the dealers living from hand to mouth their entire careers(?) (Bourgois p.91). A lack of legitimate employment opportunity is yet another factor that is particularly hindering for people trying to get out of the drug business, because most employers are loathe to hire someone with a police record. Ultimately, it seems like a bad option for anyone to take, but it is one of the only options available (Jacobs p.41).

            The drug business is run like any other business, with the caveat that there is a huge amount of money and resources dedicated to totally eradicating drugs and drug addicts. The war on drugs, therefore, is not a “war” by any definition of the word, because only one “side” is trying to destroy the other “side”.  Drug dealers do not usually try to fight the police, nor are they mounting a general attack on the citizens of this country. On the other end of the distribution network, the farmers are not actively trying to hurt anybody either. On the most basic level they are trying to feed themselves by growing the only crop anyone wants to buy. This is by no means a defense of drug dealers, but in looking at the drug trade as a whole, it seems clear that we are punishing the poorest and most helpless persons involved. We are also losing the “war”.







Adler, Patricia A. (1985). Wheeling and Dealing; An Ethnography of an Upper Level Dealing and Smuggling Community. New York, NY: Columbia University Press


Bourgois, Philippe. (2003). In Search of Respect; Selling Crack in El Barrio. San Francisco, CA: Cambridge University Press


CS = Confidential Source


Jacobs, Bruce A. (1999). Dealing Crack; The social world of streetcorner selling. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press


McCoy, Alfred. (2004). The Stimulus of Prohibition: A Critical History of the Global Narcotics Trade. In Steinburg, Michael K., Hobbs, Joseph J., Mathewson, Kent. Dangerous Harvest: Drug Plants and the transformation of the Indigenous Landscape. New York, NY: Oxford University Press


Nazemroaya, Mahdi Darius (October 17 2006). The War in Afghanistan: Drugs, Money Laundering and the Banking System. GlobalResearch.ca.



NDIC (2006). “National Drug Threat Assessment 2006




Forces of Habit: Drugs and the making of the modern world

                                                             In Forces of Habit, the author examines the historical evidence of known drug use in order to establish how each drug found its place in society.  David Courtwright does not differentiate between legal and illegal drugs in looking at the effects of the drug.  This is important because the licit/illicit label is really just a matter of timing.  The status of a particular drug, both legally and culturally, changes as societies develop better ways to administer and distribute a drug as well as advances allowing people to see the side effects.  The most significant point in the book is that there is usually a correlation between a drug’s legal status, the politics of the major distributors, and the evidence of misuse and health problems.            In discussing the prevention techniques, it is first important to realize that there is a balance producing societies must adhere to.  This is the balance between the perceived harmful effects of a drugs and the income derived from its distribution.  This balance has to be maintained both for illicit drugs and prevention and licit drugs and taxation.  The prevention policies should reflect the relative harm the drug does to a person or society as a whole.  At the other end if a widespread legal drug is taxed too heavily, the black market will respond as it does with banned drugs.            Drugs could not come into popular use unless there are people making a lot of money as producers or distributors. Even drugs that can be created or found by the consumer, it requires large economies of scale to make a drug efficient and affordable for the full spectrum of society.  The first parts of Forces of Habit examine how some of the most common drugs were discovered and distributed.  With the exception of alcohol, these drugs such as tea and opium were local plants that were introduced sparingly to other cultures through warfare or trading.  Once the positive effects of the drugs were known, merchants began capitalizing on what was a delicacy at first.  They became cash crops because the markets grew very rapidly and had a seemingly inexhaustible demand.  Without education as to the harms of a drug or treatment available, a drug market is constantly growing because of tolerance and addiction.  The big three, Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine became extremely widespread because of the demand Europeans developed for them and the plantation system, which lowered the price to the workingman’s level while still yielding huge profits for the importers and the government through taxes.  Courtwright makes the point that it was this selective distribution by Europeans that led to the unalterable position these substances occupy in western societies today.            The puzzle of distribution deals with how to most effectively get a drug into the consumer’s body.  The refining process and the developments of global commerce made the distribution of certain drugs economically feasible.  A refined product such as cocaine vs. coca leaves or spirits vs. wine not only has a much longer shelf life but is more quickly absorbed, intensifying the effects and experience of the user.  The problem with trying to identify how certain drugs were chosen to be mass produced by Europeans is that they associated many drugs with the cultures in which they were found and so many drugs were viewed as evil, or in league with godless societies.            With the rise of the scientific process and advances in medicine, the harmful effects of many drugs became provable and more evident and so the drugs for pleasure market took a backseat to the drugs as medicine market. The irony is that the use of these drugs was not as widespread before they came in medicinal form.  Drugs like opium have always been seen as having some curative properties but the disguise and miraculous claims by doctors prompted an epidemic of patent medicines that were just as harmful as their illegal counterparts.  People trusted their doctors and certainly enjoyed the medicine, but when the abuses in the patent medicine industries were exposed and some very widely distributed drugs were outlawed a great many people were already addicted.            The most useful thing Courtwright gives us in regards to prevention is the knowledge of why people use drugs.  Drugs are poisons and the continuing consumption of poison seemingly contradicts the law of natural selection. (p.91)  The authors looks at several different theories about why people would wants to alter their consciousness but the bottom line is that most people in the world constantly do things they do not want to do and an escape from this unpleasant reality is embraced.  This escape could be taken after something unpleasant to change mindset or during to offset the reality of the task itself.  It is also important to note that most drugs operate on the pleasure center of the brain and in general, particularly if the effects are not well known, people will do what makes them feel good.             Ultimately it would seem that education is the most powerful tool in preventing the use of harmful drugs.  This education should not only be about the effects of a particular drug but also about who is using them and why.  People who are poor are more likely to be depressed and people who are depressed are more likely to abuse drugs.  We are also bombarded from the right and the left by statement of opinions with very few discernable facts being shown.  Apparently some drugs are good and some drugs are bad but how is the public supposed to know which are which when you turn on the TV and are told that marijuana will make you run down a group of schoolchildren while Propecia will give a man an erection but may cause explosive diarrhea.  Attacking the roots of production has historically been a failure while attacking the roots of abuse has had some success, perhaps a war on poverty instead of a war on drugs might be more effective.