A remarkably high proportion of modern-day criminal activity is associated with narcotic drugs. The illegal drug business is now a huge transnational industry - worth around $500 billion per year. The main source countries, for either producing or trafficking, are Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand. All industrial countries are major consumers, although on a per capita basis the heaviest users are the United States and Canada.
The producing countries can see substantial financial benefits from the drug business. The poorest farmers in Peru or Afghanistan, for example, can obtain a ready and reliable income from drugs when there are few alternative crops. And at the national level, drugs make a substantial contribution to the economy Bolivia's cocaine industry is thought to be worth as much as 20 per cent of GNP. But there are also heavy social costs, both for local communities and for national institutions, as traffickers infiltrate bureaucracies, bribe decision makers and create a kind of "systemic violence".
The main consuming countries suffer from the same kinds of social corrosion. Many people resort to drugs out of desperation, but then get dragged into a net of crime to feed their addiction. Institutions in industrialized countries have also been undermined by violence and corruption.
Despite the scale of the problem, and repeated declarations of war on drugs, attempts at suppressing the drug trade have been singularly unsuccessful. Producing countries have been urged to step up military activity in drug producing areas. This can make matters worse, enhancing the power of the military and potentially heightening violence and human rights abuses. Governments and international agencies have also tried to promote alternative forms of development, though these kinds of efforts are usually undermined by the relative profitability of drug crops.
Consuming countries have also attempted to reduce the demand for drugs. Some have tried tougher law enforcement or workplace drug testing, but these kinds of initiatives tend to succeed more with the better-off consumers who feel they have something to lose; those hard-core drug users who are members of the underclass are not much deterred by a prison sentence or the prospect of losing what is usually a low-grade job. More positive community-based programmes include anti-drug education and treatment for addicts. But the most radical options are decriminalisation or legalization, which have been proposed on the grounds that much of the damage from the drug trade comes from the crime associated with it. This could also make drugs more widely available, though the evidence from the few places that have experimented with liberalization of drug laws suggests that decriminalization will not necessarily increase drug abuse.