Illegal drugs in the United States create a huge black market industry, an estimated $200-$750 billion a year in size, with the current decade seeing the largest per person drug usage per year in American history.[1]

Drugs continue to pour into the country from numerous sources despite the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), law enforcement agencies, border patrols, and the United States government. Illegal drug abuse costs American society $181 billion a year in health care costs, lost workplace productivity, law enforcement, and legal costs.[3] Prisons are overflowing with drug-related offenders, as 330,000 prison inmates in 2012 were incarcerated for drug offenses.[4] Over 30 percent of all offenses in 2013 were related to drug trafficking, and 22,215 cases of drug trafficking were reported to the United States Sentencing Commission in the 2013 fiscal year.[5]

Drug trafficking is an issue worldwide and defined as the “global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).[2]

There are six main drugs most commonly trafficked in the United States. In 2013, the percentages of drug trafficking offenses per drug were as follows:

  • Methamphetamine: 24 percent
  • Powdered cocaine: 24.1 percent
  • Marijuana: 21.5 percent
  • Crack cocaine: 13.1 percent
  • Heroin: 9.8 percent
  • Oxycodone: 4.6 percent
  • Other drugs: 3 percent[6]

Video: drug trafficking by the numbers


Busted drug traffickers in 2013 were primarily male, approximately 85.8 percent with an average age of 35 years; 73.7 percent were US citizens and almost half, 49.5 percent, had little to no prior criminal history.[7] The majority of drug trafficking offenders arrested in 2013 were Hispanic, at 47.9 percent, while 26.7 percent were black, 22.3 percent were white, and 3.1 percent were other races.[8] Almost all drug trafficking offenders sentenced in 2013 went to prison, 96.3 percent, with an average sentence length of 72 months.[9] Sentences varied depending on the type of drug trafficked, with the biggest penalties for crack cocaine and meth, and the lightest sentences for marijuana-related offenses.[10]

Southwestern border

Most of the illicit drugs come into the United States across the vast 2,000-mile land border between the US and Mexico, called the Southwestern border or SWB.[11] Drug cartels in Mexico utilize drug mules, tunnels, boats, vehicles, trains, aircrafts, donkeys, and couriers to get illegal drugs into America. Mexican drug cartels make an estimated $19-$29 billion a year on drug sales in the United States.[12] Conflicts between drug cartels over territory as well as the attempts to stop drug trafficking by law enforcement officials often results in violence, and this has caused over 55,000 deaths since the proclaimed Mexican Drug War began in 2006.[13]

Mexico’s involvement in the illicit drug trade in the United States:

  • Marijuana: Mexico is the number one foreign supplier of marijuana to the United States, and marijuana is thought to be the top revenue generator for Mexican drug cartels.
  • Cocaine: Mexico does not produce cocaine, however, Mexican cartels move Columbian cocaine through South and Central America and into the United States. An estimated 93 percent of cocaine headed to the US from South America moves through Mexico.
  • Methamphetamine: Mexico remains the biggest foreign supplier of methamphetamine to the United States, and Mexican drug cartels set up labs to manufacture meth on both sides of the border, controlling labs in Southern California as well as domestically.
  • Heroin: While Asia and the Middle East remain the biggest producers of heroin, Mexican black-tar and brown heroin is on the rise. In fact, 39 percent of heroin identified under the DEA’s Heroin Signature Program (HSP) in 2008 came from Mexico, making Mexico the source country for many of the heroin abusers west of the Mississippi River.[14]

It is no surprise then that the top five districts sentencing drug trafficking offenders were on or near the SWB in 2013:

  • Western District of Texas: 1,587 sentenced drug trafficking offenders
  • Southern District of California: 1,426 sentenced drug trafficking offenders
  • Southern District of Texas: 1,279 sentenced drug trafficking offenders
  • District of Arizona: 1,162 sentenced drug trafficking offenders
  • District of Puerto Rico: 687 sentenced drug trafficking offenders[15]
Methamphetamine trafficking

The popular stimulant drug made from the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine found in cold medications and manufactured into illegal methamphetamine in illicit laboratories may have initially been primarily trafficked by motorcycle gangs up and down the West Coast but concentrated in California. Mexican drug cartels are now heavily involved, and organized crime syndicates both manufacture and distribute the finished product as well as secure the main ingredients for domestic production in numerous smaller labs around the country. Superlabs produce larger quantities of meth at a time and are generally controlled by Mexican drug cartels, regardless of the side of the border on which the labs reside.

Legislation regarding the controlled status and sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine products has caused drug traffickers to get more creative in the ways they obtain the main ingredient in meth. The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act in 2005, required retailers to keep pseudoephedrine products behind the counter and to register sales.[16] Traffickers began sending buyers to multiple retail outlets in the same day to buy small and legal amounts of pseudoephedrine, a process called “smurfing,” which they then used in clandestine labs to produce meth.

Meth can be “cooked” virtually anywhere; however, rural and smaller labs are prevalent across the Midwest and around the United States as well. Domestic meth production may be on the rise, as meth can be cut with many common products including anhydrous ammonia, one of the main ingredients used in fertilizer by farmers.

Meth labs are highly volatile as cutting meth uses highly flammable and explosive materials. From 2007-2009, the number of domestic meth lab incidents rose from 596 to 966 across the country, especially in the South and the Midwest.[17] Oregon, Mississippi, and several cities have passed laws making pseudoephedrine only available with a prescription, and in Oregon, meth lab incidents decreased from 400 in 2004 to just 20 in 2008.[18]

Prices of meth have dropped 70 percent between 2007 and 2012 while purity has increased. Meth seizures at the border have jumped from just over 2,000 kilograms to more than 10,000 kilograms.[19] With the help tutorials on the Internet, small meth labs have sprung up around the country, although estimates report that 90 percent of the meth for sale on the streets in the United States is still made in Mexico.[20]

Marijuana and the effects of legalization

Line chart expressing the growth of the marijuana industryMarijuana is the most popular illicit drug in the United States, as more than 80 percent of drug abusers used marijuana in 2013, and 19.8 million Americans aged 12 and older used marijuana in the month before the 2013 national survey.[21] The legality of marijuana in America has been hotly debated for years. Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have voted to decriminalize marijuana and legalize its use for medicinal or recreational purposes.[22]

Domestic marijuana growers may be increasing their production, and the American public seems to prefer the designer strains and more potent domestic pot to the Mexican tightly packed “mota” bricks. Marijuana seizures at the SWB have gone down from 2.5 million pounds in 2011 to 1.9 million pounds in 2014, and the Mexican army confiscated 32 percent less cannabis in 2014.[23]

The legal marijuana industry in America increased 74 percent in 2014, up to $2.7 billion.[24] The shift to a more local market has caused the Mexican cartels to change gears and move toward other drugs in an attempt to continue to profit from the drug trade. Heroin and meth seem to be the answer as seizures of both of these drugs at the US/Mexico border increased as marijuana seizures declined.

Since 2009, heroin seizures at the SWB have almost tripled while meth seizures quintupled through 2014.[25]

Columbian cocaine and crack cocaine

Sentencing difference in crack and crack cocaineCocaine comes from the coca plant traditionally grown in South America and in Columbia in particular. Cocaine is harvested into both a white powder and the cheaper crystalline rock form called “crack.”

The stimulant drug was commonly shipped by boat to Mexico for transport across the border into the US until 2007 when government efforts may have created a shift in cocaine trafficking. Around 60 percent of the 90 percent of cocaine reaching America through Mexico is now thought to stop in Central America first in order to avoid detection.[26] The price of cocaine on the American streets has thus risen 72 percent while purity has decreased by almost 33 percent.[27] Officials have noticed a 58 percent drop in cocaine seizures at the southwestern border.[28] Domestic seizures of cocaine have dropped significantly from 118,128 kilograms in 2005 to 24,103 in 2013, as cocaine’s popularity wanes.[29]

Crack cocaine is cut with common products, making it less pure than powdered cocaine and therefore much less expensive. In the early 1980s, it hit the big cities and urban areas in the United States hard, leading to a sentencing disparity often criticized for its seemingly racial inequality. Crack cocaine possession and distribution initially carried a sentence 100 times more extreme than its powdered form, even though it is essentially the same drug. In 2010, President Obama reduced the sentencing disparity to 18 to one.

In 2009, almost 80 percent of crack cocaine offenders were black and serving an average of 115-month sentences in contrast with the 28 percent of powdered cocaine offenders serving an average of 87 months.[30]Cocaine abuse has dropped 50 percent since 2006, and although crack offenses still indicate a racial element, sentence lengths have decreased.[31] In 2013, a little over 13 percent of drug offenses involved crack cocaine and still over 80 percent of offenders were black.[32] Of these offenders, 90 percent were male and 97.5 percent were American citizens, with an average age of 33 and an average sentence length of 96 months.[33]

Pill mills and increased heroin abuse and trafficking
Opioid overdose statistic

Drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in the United States in 2013, and over half of these overdoses are related to the abuse of prescription medications.[34] Prescription painkillers, or opioids, are of particular concern, as 44 Americans die every day as a result of a prescription opioid overdose.[35]

While the majority of prescription medications are obtained for free from a friend or relative – 53 percent in 2013 – the rise in popularity of prescription medications as drugs of abuse has opened up a black market for the diversion and sale of these products.[36] Approximately 28.1 percent of law enforcement agencies report that controlled prescription drugs are the largest drug threat in America, up from 9.8 percent in 2009, with states in the southeastern region of the country reporting even higher percentages.[37]

Pain management clinics, often called “pill mills,” opened their doors in direct response to the growing prescription drug abuse epidemic, devising creative ways to avoid regulation and counter law enforcement control. These pill mills are often cash-only businesses. While they can be found all over the country, Texas, Louisiana, California, and Florida have the highest concentration of pill mills.[38]

New regulations regarding pill mill operations as well as the introduction tamper-resistant prescription opioids and tighter control of these highly addictive pain relievers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone products, may have created a resurgence of other illicit drugs. For instance, in 2010, OxyContin released a new and harder to crush format, making it more difficult to obtain and abuse the resulting powder. OxyContin’s street price skyrocketed, and by 2012, only 12.8 percent of Americans were choosing to abuse OxyContin, down from 35.6 percent.[39] Prescription opioids began to fall out of favor and Oxy abusers instead turned to the old standby, heroin.

Most of the heroin on the streets in America has traditionally arrived from the Asian and Middle Eastern markets; however, recently a shift in the production of Mexican heroin has changed this dynamic, as the demand for heroin in the US increases. Heroin seizures at the SWB border increased 232 percent from 2008-2012.[40]

The demographic of heroin abusers has seen a dramatic shift also with younger and more suburban types turning to heroin after abusing pain relievers. Around half of new injection heroin abusers may have first abused painkillers.[41] While the number of heroin users has tripled in the US in the past five years, up to 600,000 Americans, over 10 million Americans are still abusing prescription pain medications.[42]

Role of the internet in drug trafficking

In recent years, drug channels have shifted some as the popularity of the Internet has surged. There are numerous ways to find and order illicit drugs online and even have them delivered by mail to your doorstep. Most common, perhaps, are synthetic and designer drugs that often contain legal and unregulated chemicals. The most popular among these designer drugs are synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.

Synthetic cannabinoids, called “Spice,” “K2,” and “fake weed,” contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, although the THC in these dangerous designer drugs is often up to 100 times more potent than what you might find in traditional pot.[43] Spice is sold as “incense” or “potpourri” in local head shops, gas stations, and on the Internet, often escaping regulation due to labeling that markets the plant-based material sprayed with synthetic drugs as “not intended for human consumption.” Synthetic cathinones, called “bath salts,” are hallucinogenic drugs that may mimic LSD or ecstasy, and they are sold as “jewelry cleaner” or “plant food.”

In 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was passed, regulating some of the mind-altering chemicals used to manufacture Spice and bath salts in illicit laboratories.[44] These chemicals are often imported from China and come in hundreds of varieties. As one chemical is controlled, inventive drug distributors and producers discover and market another.[45] The Internet is rife with ways to abuse these drugs, where to find them, and even a ranking system on which are the best.

An overdose on these designer drugs can be very unpredictable and can lead to paranoid delusions, aggression, hostility, psychosis, and anxiety as well as cause nausea, vomiting, an irregular heart rate, and heightened blood pressure and body temperatures. Poison control call centers received over a thousand calls related to adverse reactions to Spice products in the first few weeks of April 2015 alone.[46] Spice abuse has decreased in the past few years as it becomes more difficult to obtain the psychoactive chemicals with them becoming more tightly controlled and their status switching from legal to illegal. Still one in 20 high school students admitted to using Spice in 2014.[47]

In 2013, over 24 million Americans aged 12 and older were current illicit drug users, meaning they had abused drugs in the month prior to the national survey.[48]

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, employs over 9,000 men and women, and strives to curb the flow of drugs into America and their distribution domestically.[49] From 2005-2014, the DEA has successfully stemmed almost $30 billion dollars in revenue from drug traffickers.[50]

Prison populations are full of drug offenders and abusers who committed their crimes while on drugs. In 2004, a national survey found that 32 percent of all state prisoners and 26 percent of federal prisoners admitted to being under the influence of drugs when they committed their most current offense.[51] Additionally in 2007, approximately 1.8 million people were arrested for drug abuse offenses.[52] Many of these offenders could benefit from treatment instead of incarceration.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.