In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography of Drugs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Drug Markets and Local Economies
  • Drug Use and Urban Degeneration
  • Drugs, Colonialism, and Rural Livelihoods
  • Recreational Drug Use and the Geographies of Affect
  • Law, Crime, and Policing
  • Narco-Politics, Narco-Terrorism
  • The War on Drugs
  • Spatial Tools

Geography Geography of Drugs
Stewart Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0079


Drugs are substances that possess psychoactive properties. The capacity of drugs to alter their user’s state of consciousness means that they have been sought after by humans throughout the millennia. Neither just a food nor simply medicine, drugs take many different forms and present opportunities as well as challenges depending on where and how they might be encountered. Space and place are implicated here in significant ways. Yet the material published on the geography of drugs is highly dispersed since it has been driven by multiple practical and disciplinary interests. It variously concerns the environmental settings of drugs including natural, farmed, and urban landscapes and the different relationships formed therein; and the political, economic, sociocultural, and historical backgrounds against which their use and misuse arise and are shaped. The legislated status of drugs not least as primarily illicit substances is relevant to the issues of crime, policing and regulation, organized crime and terrorism, and the wars on terror as well as drugs. Drug-related public health matters range from epidemiology to health-care policy, service provision, treatment and prevention; but the pleasurable, recreational aspects of drug use should not be overlooked. A geographical lens is central to comprehending how such drug phenomena are constituted in, and constitutive of, the particularity of place. It is also important to consider how the attendant spatial relationships are dynamic and multi-scalar as evinced by the complex and ever-changing local, regional, and global problems of drugs manufacture, international trafficking, and drug-use epidemics. Meanwhile the legality (and more often illegality but sometimes decriminalization) of drugs is a critical factor in their geography. It remains defined inside the traditional, territorial units of nations and states though geopolitical relations and processes of globalization, international aid, and development are increasingly significant influences here. These various issues and aspects to the geography of drugs can in turn require sophisticated responses. Spatial modeling and tools for analysis such as GIS and remote sensing are therefore increasingly used to better understand and manage them.

General Overviews

Comprehensive works on the geography of drugs are unusual as the subject considered in its entirety is so diverse as to be prohibitive. Commonly licit drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and others, including khat (which is not necessarily or as yet regulated) are most often excluded from this article. They do feature though in broad works such as the collection by Goodman, et al. 2007 and the introduction to a journal special issue by Wilton and Moreno 2012. In similar style, Steinberg, et al. 2004 is a multi-layered exploration of the social and environmental changes stemming from drug-related activities in indigenous landscapes understood in relation to matters of international political economy among others. Mennis and Mason 2011 examines from a health perspective an array of illicit substances used in the modern-day United States. Rengert 1996 is a classic by a geographer of crime. For reasonable coverage of drugs use and trafficking in the European Union, see Boekhout Van Solinge 1998. Thomas, et al. 2008 is the most comprehensive overview of geographical research on drug use and addiction from perspectives that are variously social, epidemiological, crimino-legal, and technical as well as always explicitly spatial. The WHO 2010 atlas is a useful global compendium of prevention and treatment. DeVerteuil and Wilton 2009 is concerned with the social geography of health.

  • Boekhout Van Solinge, Tim. “Drug Use and Drug Trafficking in Europe.” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 89.1 (1998): 100–105.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9663.00010

    Examines use and trafficking of the main “natural” drugs (cannabis, coca, and opiates) and synthetics (amphetamine, ecstasy, and LSD). Interesting commentary on the geopolitics of Turkey in relation to NATO and EU, and on new trafficking routes with post-Soviet collapse.

  • DeVerteuil, Geoffrey, and Robert Wilton. “The Geographies of Intoxicants: From Production and Consumption to Regulation, Treatment and Prevention.” Geography Compass 3.1 (2009): 478–494.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00204.x

    A review that extends the use of drugs understood as intoxicants to include the misuse of prescription drugs such as painkillers and more unusual substances including aerosols and gasoline. It is produced by social geographers of health and therefore focuses on connections to place rather than geopolitical or spatial relations.

  • Goodman, Jordan, Paul E. Lovejoy, and Andrew Sherratt, eds. Consuming Habits: Global and Historical Perspectives on How Cultures Define Drugs. 2d ed. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2007.

    Substantially revised and updated since 1995. Perspectives from anthropology, archaeology, and history among others attend to matters of environment and geography for a diversity of drugs. Cannabis and poppy are examined in settings that range from prehistoric Eurasia to the contemporary world. Recent obsessions with coffee, alcohol, and tobacco extend to the less familiar betelnut in Papua New Guinea, yagé in Amerindia, and khat in Africa.

  • Mennis, Jeremy, and Michael J. Mason. “People, Places, and Adolescent Substance Use: Integrating Activity Space and Social Network Data for Analyzing Health Behavior.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101.2 (2011): 272–291.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2010.534712

    Conducted from an environmental psychology and adolescent health perspective, it surveys 215 primarily African American youth in Philadelphia. Drug use (mostly alcohol and cannabis but also LSD, amphetamines, cocaine or crack, barbiturates, PCP, inhalants, and valium) is linked to place perception, activity space, and social networks.

  • Rengert, George. The Geography of Illegal Drugs. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.

    Seminal text on the supply of different illicit drugs into the United States and their trafficking through neighborhoods and states. Some ethnographic findings but a mostly quantitative locational analysis and mapping of spatial diffusion used to explain dynamic patterns at various scales and find law enforcement solutions.

  • Steinberg, Michael K., Joseph J. Hobbs, and Kent Mathewson, eds. Dangerous Harvest: Drug Plants and the Transformation of Indigenous Landscapes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Broad collection of standalone chapters on cannabis in Belize, Mexico, and colonial India; peyote in Texas; opium in Laos, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and China; coca in Bolivia and Peru; and kava in Oceania. Commentary on the global nexus of drug cultivation and a moral geography weaves together various indigenous landscapes.

  • Thomas, Yonette F., Douglas Richardson, and Ivan Cheung, eds. Geography and Drug Addiction. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-8509-3

    Represents all main aspects to the geography of drug use. Includes mapping spatial patterns; linking spatial models, socio-environmental and demographic characteristics to neuroscience, genetics and biomedical research; locational analyses of addiction treatment and service delivery facilities; neighborhood scale studies of geographic factors in drug addiction, treatment and prevention; and use of GIS, spatial diffusion and predictive modeling.

  • WHO. Atlas on Substance Use (2010): Resources for the Prevention and Treatment of Substance Use Disorders. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2010.

    Provides regional overviews on the epidemiology of alcohol and illicit drug use, treatment options, health-care services, policy and legislation, and prevention. Includes comparative details for each nation as appendices.

  • Wilton, Robert, and Christopher M. Moreno. “Critical Geographies of Drugs.” Social and Cultural Geography 13.3 (2012): 99–108.

    DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2012.670505

    A useful overview of the geographies of drugs and alcohol. It refers to the shifts both in social values and in research paradigms, noting the importance of the night-time economy, the regulatory frameworks, and public health responses.

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