Human Trafficking and Drug Abuse

A person behind a fence

The terms “human trafficking” and “drug abuse” are terms that invoke senses of anguish, and despair. Human trafficking and drug abuse are terrible occurrences, and both occur in the U.S. and the world.

Not too long ago, I met with an activist who works with a movement called “End It.” The End It Movement is an international coalition of leadership organizations dedicated to ending slavery, human trafficking, and sex trafficking. In our meeting, we talked about her background working in that field, and I told her about my experience working in addiction treatment.

I was horrified when she said, “Did you know that a huge percentage of the women and men, girls and boys, who are put into slavery or the sex industry are doped up on narcotics?”

I had no idea. But I looked into it. And she was right. The sex trade and drug trade often go hand in hand. I decided to research the issue further and see if I could get to the bottom of the connection between these horrible industries.

Studying the Issue

“Common health issues found in (human trafficking) victims may be from substance abuse problems or addictions resulting from either being coerced into drug use by their traffickers or by turning to substance abuse to help cope with or mentally escape their desperate situations.” That’s a direct quote from the Human Trafficking Task Force e-Guide, a free database offered by the Office for Victims of Crime.

“Common health issues found in (human trafficking) victims may be from substance abuse problems or addictions resulting from either being coerced into drug use by their traffickers or by turning to substance abuse to help cope with or mentally escape their desperate situations.”
Human trafficking victim is smoking heroin

The above statement is true, horribly so. People who are taken into the human trafficking system are often coerced into doing drugs because they already had substance abuse problems to begin with (and those substance abuse issues were used as leverage to get the individual to enter the sex trade or slave trade).

And yes, that’s how powerful addiction is. People will sell their bodies, sell their lives even, to get their next fix.

According to an article on Trafficking Matters, about 15 percent of human trafficking survivors surveyed in 2014 admitted that they engaged in substance abuse before or during their time spent in the trafficking system. The actual figure is likely much higher than 15 percent. We’ll probably never know the exact number, as we only have the personal testimony of survivors to go on.

For some additional reading on the subject, the Trafficking Matters article also cites data from the Polaris Project, another organization dedicated to ending human trafficking.

The issue of human trafficking and drug abuse has even caught the eye of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the presiding federal organization tasked with monitoring and addressing all things drug addiction-related in the United States. According to NIDA, “Trafficking of illegal drugs and human trafficking often happen together. Drug traffickers may also be transporting people as another source of money. Human traffickers may also force their victims to smuggle drugs across borders. Human traffickers can use drugs as ’bait’ to recruit people who have a substance use disorder. Or they can use drugs to force a victim to obey their orders, or work harder or for longer hours.”

In another article, the Attorney General of New Jersey, Gurbir Grewal, commented on the connection between human trafficking and drug abuse. “Criminals are forcing women into addiction by providing them strong and potent drugs as a means of exerting control. Human trafficking is a transnational problem. It’s a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that affects tens of millions of people across the country and across the world.”

Here’s my takeaway from the research. Well, two takeaways. One is that human trafficking and drug abuse are often connected. The other is that if you are able to reduce one side of the crisis, you’ll also reduce the other side.

If you help people get out of the sex trade, if you can help free people from slavery and human trafficking, you can also help them overcome their dependencies on drugs and alcohol.

And remember, it is people who are already addicted to drugs and alcohol who are often targeted for human trafficking. It follows then that if you reduce the number of addicts by helping addicts get off of drugs, you can also reduce the total number of people who get swept up in the human trafficking system.

What Kind of Society Do We Want to Live In?

I think it can be difficult to believe that tens of millions of people on earth are still slaves. But that’s the truth. I also think it can be difficult to believe that millions of people struggle with drug addiction just in the United States alone. But that too, sadly, is the truth.

It’s so easy to live a life of peaceful comfort, ignorant of the suffering of others in the world. We even live lives of comfort with people suffering in our very own neighborhoods. There might be someone just down the street who struggles with a drug habit, a drinking problem, a history of sexual victimization or domestic abuse, etc.

We never know if we don’t ask. And we won’t ask if we don’t get ourselves involved in our own communities.

As technology and society advances, it’s getting easier and more comfortable to keep to ourselves, to no longer have to rely on our communities and neighbors for support.

But we have to ask ourselves if that’s the kind of society we want to live in. People are suffering. And while anyone and everyone has the inherent ability to change the conditions of their own lives, everyone needs help at some point in their lives.

I, for one, am glad I learned of the connection between human trafficking and drug addiction. Is it horrible to think about it? Absolutely. Gut-wrenchingly so. But for me, it serves as all the more incentive to keep promoting change, to keep encouraging treatment, to keep pushing for a better world for all of us.

I hope it does the same for you.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.