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Drug trafficking

Regulatory framework

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.

Market and trends

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; UNODC, 2019).

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 (UNODC, 2017). 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. In the last years, law enforcement agencies have infiltrated and shut down a series of Darknet drug markets (such as AlphaBay, Hansa, Wall Street Market, etc.) which, as online surveys show, resulted in a potential decline in the proportion of users purchasing drugs on the darknet in 2018, notably in North America, Oceania and Latin America (UNODC, 2019).

The 2019 World Drug Report estimates that in 2017 over a quarter of a billion people had used drugs at least once in the previous year. Overall, drug consumption has increased by 30% between 2009 and 2017 - from 210 million to 271 million -, in part as a result of global population growth, with higher prevalence over time of the use of opioids in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, and in the use of cannabis in North America, South America and Asia. Over the last decade, there has been a diversification of the substances available on the drug markets. In addition to traditional plant-based substances, such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin, the dynamic market for synthetic drugs substantially grew together with the non-medical use of prescription medicines.

Regarding drug supply, the same UNODC Report highlights that cannabis continues to be the most widely produced drug worldwide and this market is undergoing transition and diversification in countries that allow non-medical use of cannabis. Global coca bush cultivation showed a clear upward trend over the period 2013-2017l, increasing by more than 100 per cent. Estimated global illicit manufacture of cocaine reached an all-time high of 1,976 tons in 2017; in the same year, about 70 per cent of the area under coca bush cultivation was located in Colombia, 20 per cent in Peru and 10 per cent in the Plurinational State of Bolivia. At the same time, the global quantity of cocaine seized in 2017 increased by 13 per cent from the previous year, helping to keep cocaine supply in check even though cocaine use is on the rise in North America and Western and Central Europe. 2018 saw a decline in the cultivation of opium poppy, primarily as a result of a drought in Afghanistan which nonetheless was again the country responsible for the vast majority of the world's illicit opium poppy cultivation and opium production in that year.

As for the global synthetic drugs market, it is generally more complex to study for a number of reasons. First and foremost, 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. In 2017, South-East Asia emerged as the world's fastest-growing methamphetamine market, while North America's synthetic opioid overdose crisis reached new heights, with over 47,000 opioid overdose deaths recorded in the United States which were largely attributed to substances such as fentanyl and its analogues. Meanwhile, West, Central and North Africa are currently experiencing a crisis of tramadol, another synthetic opioid which has been used as a painkiller for decades (UNODC, 2019).

Recent data shows that the number of new psychoactive substances that are synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl analogues, reported on the market has been rising at an unprecedented rate: from just 1 substance in 2009 to 15 in 2015 and 46 in 2017, while the overall number of these substances present on the market stabilized at around 500 per year over the period 2015-2017 (UNODC, 2019). New psychoactive substances, or NPS, are 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 over 40 years ago - but to substances that have recently become available on the market. 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.

Challenges and opportunities

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.

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