Updated October 24, 2017
Transnational Crime Issues: International Drug Trafficking
As a matter of U.S. and international policy, the production,
dissemination, sale, and human consumption of potentially
harmful and dangerous drugs, psychotropic substances, and
related chemicals are controlled through laws, regulations,
and related enforcement actions. Globally, the U.S.
government contributes to counternarcotics efforts in
international fora, including the United Nations (U.N.), for
norm setting and multilateral cooperation on policy as well
as law enforcement investigations. The U.S. government
also supports bilateral and regional capacity building efforts
through the allocation of foreign assistance, a key pillar of
the U.S. government’s National Drug Control Strategy.
Since the 1970s, U.S. counternarcotics assistance to foreign
countries has grown to span a wide range of programming,
including specialized police training, justice sector capacity
building, drug crop elimination, interdiction support, and
demand reduction. In recent years, U.S. policy has placed
increasing emphasis on (1) embedding drug issues within
the context of countering transnational organized crime; (2)
combating the convergence of drugs, terrorism, and other
illicit activity; and (3) integrating drug supply reduction
programming (eradication, interdiction, arrests,
prosecutions, incarcerations, etc.) with programming that
responds to the societal and political consequences of such
trafficking (violence, dislocation, addiction, corruption,
weak governance, etc.).
Opiates and Heroin
Globally, illicit opium poppy is cultivated in almost 50
countries, supplying local, regional, or international
distribution and consumption of opium and opiates,
including heroin. The primary global producers are located
in Southwest Asia (Afghanistan), Southeast Asia (Burma
and Laos), and Latin America (Mexico, Colombia, and
Guatemala). Although global production estimates have
fluctuated from year to year, opiate consumption has
remained largely stable for more than a decade, according
to U.N. statistics.
Global trends, however, may obscure regional shifts. In the
United States, for example, heroin use has increased along
with the number of heroin-related deaths in recent years. A
recent U.S. trend involves the lacing of heroin with potent
synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.
Concurrent with efforts to reverse recent domestic drug use
and overdose trends, foreign policy discussions center on
how to boost U.S. efforts to reduce the production of such
drugs at their source, interdict the drugs in transit, and
dismantle the criminal organizations facilitating the trade.
Most U.S.-consumed heroin originates in Latin America,
following a trend since at least the 1990s; in recent years,
Mexico appears to have replaced Colombia as the lead U.S.
producer and supplier (see Table 1). According to the Drug
Enforcement Agency (DEA), clandestinely produced
fentanyl may be sourced from Mexico, while fentanyl
analogs and precursor chemicals needed in the manufacture
of fentanyl are sourced from China.
Table 1. Mexico: Poppy/Heroin, 2013-2016
Poppy cultivation (ha)
Potential pure heroin (mt)
Source: Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
The three primary sources of coca bush, the plant from
which cocaine is derived, are located in South America:
Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Although U.N. estimates at
the global level indicate that the cocaine market is stable,
the vast expansion of Colombia’s coca cultivation and
cocaine production in recent years (see Table 2) may be
driving changes in the global market, as may the potential
for emerging cocaine consumption in Asia and the Pacific.
At the regional level, cocaine use and availability trends
suggest potential for further growth. Already, consumption
in the United States is up, after sharp declines through
2012. Despite stagnating European consumption in recent
years, cocaine availability is increasing. Another
concerning trend involves an uptick in the number of
overdose deaths involving a combination of cocaine and
other illicit drugs.
Table 2. Colombia: Coca/Cocaine, 2013-2016
Coca cultivation (ha)
Potential cocaine (mt)
The efficacy of U.S. approaches to combat cocaine
production and trafficking in Latin America has been a
source of longstanding debate; in recent years, reform
priorities in the region have diverged from the historical
U.S. focus on supply reduction. Aerial eradication in
Colombia, for example, ended in October 2015. With
substantial U.S. assistance devoted to programs in
Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and Peru,
policymakers and Members of Congress may continue to
monitor the effectiveness of such programs.
Implementation of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy
Commission, enacted in the Department of State
Authorities Act, Fiscal Year 2017 (P.L. 114-323), may
provide a focus for ongoing engagement and oversight.
Transnational Crime Issues: International Drug Trafficking
Chemical Controls and New
Psychoactive Substances (NPS)
Various chemical substances are used in the production of
synthetic man-made drugs, such as methamphetamine, or to
refine and process plant-based drugs, such as heroin and
cocaine. Such chemicals may be manufactured for
legitimate commercial purposes and illicitly diverted. DEA
has reported, for example, that most methamphetamine in
the United States is produced in Mexico.
NPS are chemicals designed to mimic the effects of illegal
drugs, but are not subject to international drug controls and
are inconsistently regulated at the national level. From a
total of just 26 reported NPS in 2008, the U.N. reports that
more than 739 NPS were discovered between 2009 and
2016 (see Table 3). Common NPS used in the United
States include synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice and K2,
as well as synthetic cathinones (bath salts). Many of these
NPS are sourced from countries known for their chemical
production capabilities, including China. In the absence of
timely updates to international drug control listings,
countries are trying different policy approaches to regulate
or prohibit NPS distribution and use. Many observers
acknowledge this as an evolving policy area.
Table 3. U.N.-Reported NPS, 2009-2016
Source: U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Cannabis, or marijuana, is the most widely cultivated,
produced, and consumed illegal drug in the world.
According to the U.N., approximately 3.8% of the global
population used cannabis in 2015—a trend that has
remained largely stable since 1998. In recent years, a
growing number of countries have participated in efforts to
variously decriminalize, depenalize, and legally regulate
cannabis cultivation and consumption, whether for medical
purposes or for recreation. Uruguay, for example, passed a
law in 2013 to authorize the production and distribution of
cannabis for adult recreational use. In the United States,
although cannabis remains a federally controlled substance
on par with heroin and ecstasy, several states have passed
laws to legalize marijuana for recreational and/or medical
use. Internationally, the United States has come under
pressure to reconcile its federal and state policies, including
at the 2016 U.N. General Assembly Special Session on the
World Drug Problem.
Authorities and Appropriations
The President is authorized, “notwithstanding any other
provision of law,” to provide assistance to foreign countries
and organizations for counternarcotics purposes and other
anticrime purposes. The authority, incorporated into the
Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) of 1961, as amended, serves
as the authorizing basis for annual appropriations for the
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement
(INCLE) account administered by the State Department.
For FY2017, Congress appropriated $889.664 million in
base budget funding to the INCLE account and $412.260
million in INCLE overseas contingency operation (OCO)
funding (the INCLE account also funds programs for noncounternarcotics purposes). According to the Office of
National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the White House
Office that advises the President on federal drug policy and
budget matters, the State Department’s Bureau of
International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL)
managed $446.1 million in international counternarcotics
programming in FY2015.
Pursuant to the FAA, as amended, “priority consideration”
is to be given to development programming that would both
reduce drug crop cultivation and stimulate broader
economic opportunities. On the basis of this authority, the
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) uses
funds appropriated for Development Assistance (DA)
and/or the Economic Support Fund (ESF) to implement
alternative development programming in Afghanistan,
Colombia, and Peru. According to ONDCP, USAID
managed $95.5 million in such funding in FY2015.
Foreign assistance appropriated to the State Department
may also be subject to restrictions on the basis of foreign
country counternarcotics performance. A cornerstone of
this policy is an annual process in which the President
identifies major foreign illicit drug producing and transit
countries and prohibits bilateral assistance to those whose
counternarcotics efforts are determined to be lacking. In
annual State-Foreign Operations appropriations, Congress
adds additional conditions and reporting requirements on
the use of funds, including counternarcotics INCLE funds.
The Secretary of Defense is additionally authorized to
support the counterdrug activities of foreign security forces,
including law enforcement agencies. Funding for DOD
counterdrug activities is funded out of a central transfer
account (CTA) in Defense Appropriations Acts for Drug
Interdiction and Counter-Drug Activities, Defense-Wide. In
FY2017, DOD was appropriated $626.1 million in base
funds and an additional $215.3 million in OCO funds for its
counterdrug support efforts. The FY2017 NDAA, P.L. 114328, modified DOD’s counternarcotics authorities as part of
a broader reconceptualization of DOD’s security
cooperation authorities; implementation of the latter could
affect the conduct of future DOD counterdrug efforts.
The 115th Congress may continue to monitor drug
developments around the world and their impact on
domestic drug trafficking and consumption patterns. On the
international front, Members of Congress may also review
existing foreign assistance authorities and funding for
effectiveness in advancing U.S. counternarcotics priorities.
Source material, legislative research, and further policy
analysis are available to congressional clients upon
request. For additional background, see CRS Report
RL34543, International Drug Control Policy: Background
and U.S. Responses.
Liana W. Rosen, Specialist in International Crime and
Transnational Crime Issues: International Drug Trafficking
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
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