Size of Illegal Drug Market

Drug Policy Question of the Week – 3-12-12

As answered by Mary Jane Borden, Editor of Drug War Facts for the Drug Truth Network on 3-12-12.

Question of the Week: What is the size of the global illegal drug market?

A 1994 report from the United Nations called

“the traffic in illicit drugs one of the world’s most substantial money earners. The retail value of drugs, at around 500 billion US dollars a year, now exceeds the value of the international trade in oil and is second only to that of the arms trade.”

The United Nation’s 1997 World Drug Report reduced that estimate stating,

“[A] growing body of evidence suggests that the true figure lies somewhere around the $US 400 billion level … larger than the international trade in iron and steel, and motor vehicles.”

A 1998 report from the Transnational Institute with the tongue-in-cheek title, “Let’s All Guess the Size of the Illegal Drugs Industry!” placed the size of the world illegal drug market at between “$45 and $280 billion.”

Reducing these estimates even further, a 2001 article in World Economics declared,

“In true trade terms, a more reasonable estimate of the total for illicit drugs—cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and synthetic drugs—is only about $20 to $25 billion annually.”

The 2005 World Drug Report didn’t back down,

“[T]he value of the global illicit drug market for the year 2003 was estimated at $13 billion at the production level, at $94 billion at the wholesale level (taking seizures into account), and at 322 billion based on retail prices and taking seizures and other losses into account.”

Not surprisingly, that 2001 World Economics article concluded,

“The underlying data that give rise to estimates of global drug markets are riddled with discrepancies and inconsistencies.”

These Facts, numbers and others like them can be found in the Economics Chapter of Drug War Facts at