The Vast Dollar Value of the Illicit Drug Trade

A few news stories in the last week have brought the subject of the dollar value of the illicit drug trade to my attention. It occurs to me that it’s going to be very hard to eliminate the drug trade from our world as long as billions of dollars are can be made as a result of trafficking these substances.

Here’s a few of the stories I’ve come across.

An agricultural valley in Afghanistan.
 An agricultural valley in Afghanistan. 
  • The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime just issued a report on the 2017 opium poppy crop in Afghanistan. It seems that the production of opium poppies was way up last year. Of course, their opium poppies are turned into heroin and shipped around the world. The value of their heroin production last year was somewhere between $4.1 billion to $6.6 billion. That figure accounts for 20% to 32% of the country’s entire Gross Domestic Product. It’s very difficult to get a populace to redirect their agricultural efforts when so much depends on this one crop.
  • In May 2018, an investigation into methamphetamine trafficking led law enforcement personnel to pull over a semi in Linden, North Carolina. The gas tank of this truck was found to contain $90 million in liquid methamphetamine. The 120 gallons of illicit liquid in the gas tank would convert to 1000 pounds of powdered meth.
Drugs found in a hidden compartment/Photo courtesy of the DEA.
Drugs found in a hidden compartment/Photo courtesy of the DEA.
  • Over the last few years, Mexican drug cartels have developed something similar to a monopoly that controls the trafficking of heroin and the newer threat to American lives, fentanyl. Cartels that were already manufacturing and trafficking in methamphetamine simply began acquiring the precursor chemicals for fentanyl and adding that deadly drug to their production runs. It’s vastly easier to traffic fentanyl into the U.S. than heroin because fentanyl is so much more powerful. One kilogram of fentanyl hidden in a vehicle crossing the border results in the same profits as 50 kilograms of heroin. Consider that a typical dose of fentanyl is only two milligrams—one ounce of this drug can supply 14,000 doses. In May 2018, Nebraska State Patrol found a hidden compartment filled with 54 kilograms (118 pounds) of this drug, enough to kill 26 million people. This shipment had a street value of more than $20 million.

The vast profits to be made are far too tempting to those who are willing to discard every shred of humanity and ignore the threat of death to every one of their customers. There are thousands of law enforcement personnel on the job at every level from working the streets to monitoring international trends but they will only ever be able to take a small percentage of these drugs off the streets.


The solutions lie in the home, in the schools and in the drug rehabs of this country. Parents need to be vigilant and educate their children. Schools need to provide tried and tested drug prevention classes for every child. Drug rehabs need to truly rehabilitate those in their care, not just place them on substitute medications for a long and indefinite term. And every individual who sees this danger can set an example for others by living and promoting the benefits of a drug-free life.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.