In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Political Economy of Illegal Drugs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Substance-Specific Studies
  • Money Laundering
  • Drugs, Crime, and Violence

Political Science International Political Economy of Illegal Drugs
David Mares
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0029


The subject of the illegal drug trade crops up in all the subfields of political science and is used in all of the methodological approaches taken by political scientists. The United States has been fighting a war on drugs for four decades, which provides ample material for public policy analysis and studies of the policymaking process. Race and ethnicity have always been linked with the reporting of crimes associated with drug use and sale, and thus the topic surfaces in studies of racism and class conflict. Legal issues are at the very core of the topic as are civil rights, which thus brings in perspectives from the law and society analysts. Despite well-documented scientific evidence regarding their association with health and social problems, alcohol was prohibited for only a limited time in a number of Western or Western-dominated countries, and tobacco never was. The relationship among science, politics, and public policy attracts political scientists interested in interdisciplinary studies. Political theorists can debate the limits of individual and societal rights using the topic of drugs, or the boundaries of democratic rule. Comparativists will find that virtually every variable utilized in this subfield has been argued to explain the difference among countries regarding drug use, sale, and production or levels of money laundering or violence. The drug trade, by its very nature as an international phenomenon operating under an international regime that determines its legality, is a fruitful case for international relations scholars, whether they use realist, institutionalist, or constructivist methodologies. Variations in which substances are regulated, by what means, in which countries (even within countries), and for how long should constitute the foundations for any study of the international political economy of illegal drugs. Because most studies focus on what I term “the unholy Trinity” of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, this article opens with a general overview of illegal drugs and pays particular attention to studies that recognize that Ecstasy, methamphetamine, and other synthetic drugs are used more than heroin, and in many countries, more than cocaine. Similarly, discussions about the “drug” trade misleadingly tend to divide countries into poor and weak “producing” states and rich “consuming” states; thus analyses of production, trafficking and money laundering, organized crime, and violence in “rich” countries form an important part of this bibliography. The first half of this article is heavily theoretical and comparative, while the second focuses more on specific countries and international institutions.

General Overviews

Overviews of the illegal drug trade introduce the reader to the variety of psychoactive substances that people consume and the complexity of the issues that arise from that consumption, and the efforts of other people to facilitate that consumption. The most useful overviews do not take legality as given and provide sufficient evidence that health sciences and criminology do not provide sufficient grounds for determining which substances will fall into the categories of legal by age and place; legal with medical supervision; and illegal under all circumstances (see Brecher and Consumers Union of United States 1972; MacCoun and Reuter 2001; Goldstein 2001, and Mares 2006). National Research Council 2001 is invaluable for reminding us that there is much we do not know about the use and abuse of these substances, yet our drug policies are often developed with a certainty of purpose that is not merited by medical science. Nadelmann 1990 is a great place to start thinking about why some international efforts to prohibit activities are relatively successful while others not, and Naím 2005 draws attention to the ramifications beyond the illegal drug trade of making a substance illegal. The World Drug Report is an annual survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that both reports on nationally identified trends in use, production, and trade of illegal drugs and include chapters that pursue a different topic in greater depth each year.

  • Brecher, Edward M., and Consumers Union of United States. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

    Classic study of legal and illegal drugs; reads in many parts as if written yesterday. Focuses on what was known at the time of writing about the pharmacological properties of these substances, their impact on consumers, and the failed emphasis on prohibition and punishment over education and treatment. Criticizes campaigns to instill high levels of fear about these substances. Policy reforms suggested.

  • Goldstein, Avram. Addiction: From Biology to Drug Policy. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Written by a professor of pharmacology. Examines both illegal and legal drugs and what is known about the genetics and neurobiology of addiction. Critical of the overemphasis on supply reduction and of the naive expectations of those who would simply legalize all substances. Offers policy reforms that vary by substance and are informed by experiences of European countries.

  • MacCoun, Robert J., and Peter Reuter. Drug War Heresies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511754272

    Comparative analysis across countries (United States and western Europe), time (a century), and a number of activities believed to cause social ills (gambling, prostitution, and use of alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana). Demonstrates trade-offs social groups make in deciding question of legality, the uncertain impact of legal changes, and the unwillingness of people to accept the risks inherent in change.

  • Mares, David R. Drug Wars and Coffeehouses: The Political Economy of the International Drug Trade. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2006.

    Short text raises questions about what we think we know and what we actually know about consumption, production, and distribution of psychoactive substances, as well as money laundering that accompanies the illegal drug markets. Historical and broadly comparative with in-depth case studies of Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States, and includes references throughout to the experiences of countries around the world.

  • Nadelmann, Ethan. Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International Society. International Organization 40 (1990): 479–526.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300035384

    Pathbreaking study because of its theoretical edifice and publication in a mainstream journal. Nadelmann argues that whether international treaties successfully control illegal activities depends on commitment to prohibition norms and the characteristics of the activity that render it vulnerable to law enforcement. Piracy, slavery, counterfeiting, drug trafficking, the hijacking of aircraft, and the killing of endangered animal species are covered.

  • Naím, Moisés. Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

    Quick read and good introduction to the ways illegal markets interact with legal ones, thereby raising additional challenges for those who think that policing illegality is the answer to addressing the problems raised by illegal drugs.

  • National Research Council. Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.

    Important effort by the top independent group of scientists who advise the federal government on key issues of the day. Emphasis is on what we do not know with any scientific certainty rather than a critique of drug policy. Study insists on the need to evaluate public policy in terms of its expected impact and by using scientifically valid criteria.

  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. World Drug Report.

    From 1997 to 2002 the United Nations office in charge of overseeing the international prohibition regime published the Report and the companion Global Illicit Drug Trends, focused on collecting nationally provided data on consumption, production and trafficking; they merged in 2004. Each year a theme is analyzed from the prohibitionist perspective. Authors discuss “harm reduction” policies in the context of a prohibitionist regime.

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