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Global drugs trade 'as strong as ever' as fight fails

Tuesday, 13 Aug 2013 | 2:20 AM ET
Opium poppies in Afghanistan
Bay Ismoyo | AFP Creative | Getty Images
Opium poppies in Afghanistan

The global drugs trade is evolving faster than authorities can cope with and as it spreads to new frontiers, the consensus on how to tackle global drugs trafficking, production and use is increasingly split.

"The drug trade is becoming truly more global," Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said. "New countries have emerged as crucial new demand places. For example Brazil and Argentina arguably now have per capita drug consumption on a par with the U.S."

Russia is still in the midst of "major heroin epidemic" that has lasted many years, she said, and China too was "robustly back" as a drug-consuming country. Meanwhile, West and East Africa had become the new crossroads in drug trafficking as entry points to the European market and beyond, she said.

Felbab-Brown added that it is increasingly difficult to achieve a co-ordinated international drug policy.

"It's going to be very difficult to imagine how that will [be achieved]. In 2016, the United Nations will once again go through its periodic reviews of drug policy," she said.

"But beyond that how one deals with supply side and trafficking - there is really not any consensus at all." In fact increasingly, the opposite appears to be the case, she said.


Drug trade has become much more global: Expert
Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, tells CNBC that the drug trade is becoming more global with demand coming out of the emerging markets.

According to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and European crime-fighting agency Europol, the annual global drugs trade is worth around $435 billion a year, with the annual cocaine trade worth $84 billion.

Globally, organized crime accounts for 1.5 percent of global gross domestic product and is worth around $870 billion and of that, drugs account for 50 percent of international organized crime income.

(Read more: Organized crime: The world's most lucrative criminal activities)

Problematically for global authorities, drug markets are extremely fluid and flexible and able to regroup easily elsewhere when the authorities interrupt their networks, Felbab-Brown said.

More worryingly, there is little global consensus on dealing with the drugs supply. In Latin American countries such as Uruguay, Guatemala and even Mexico, which struggles with drug- and gang-related crime, governments are considering relaxing their legislation on drugs.

"[Drug] flows are going across the world while increasingly the political realities are changing, particularly in Latin America where very different regimes are breaking with the existing global counter-narcotic regimes," she said.

Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, said that two major shifts had occurred in the drugs trade.

A Colombian anti-drugs police officer arranges packages of cocaine
AFP | AFP | Getty Images
A Colombian anti-drugs police officer arranges packages of cocaine

Drug trade routes had shifted due to interdiction by certain authorities, while uncontrolled synthetic drugs that can be created in labs anywhere are on the rise.

"The policy response has been to try to reduce and stop the supply, but all it's done is shift trade or production elsewhere," she told CNBC.

Examples of such shifts are traditional bastions of opium-growing territories shifting from South East Asia to Afghanistan. Elsewhere, cocaine traffickers are now using West Africa to get their drugs to European markets, earning countries like Guinea-Bissau the ignominious title of a "narco-state."

At the 2016 UN convention on international drug policy Fordham expected to see a further divergence by global governments over drug policies.

(Read more: The evolution of the drugs trade)

"I expect we're going to see a further breaking of the consensus over drugs with more governments shifting direction to the stance taking by some Latin American governments to decriminalize drug use. Other governments, however, such as Russia and China, will continue with their hard-line, zero-tolerance policies."

Fordham said the consensus on how to control drugs had for years focused on punitive measures while the harm to health caused by drug use was increasing. "What we've seen is that that has translated into harsh regimes that don't see drug use as a health issue and are purely focused on reducing supply and demand," she noted

"For instance, a quarter of all prisoners in the U.S are in jail for non-violent drug offences and the drugs trade is as strong as ever – that shows punitive measures are not working. We need a different approach by governments to take the trade out of the hands of organized criminals and the illicit market."

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt

Contact Europe: Economy

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