Drug Trafficking in the United States

drugs trafficking

State and federal drug trafficking is a term referring to selling, importing, or transporting illicit drugs. You may also hear it called drug operations or distribution. While the issue of drug operations in the United States is a massive challenge that’s creating uncertainty, national security concerns, and unintended consequences throughout the western hemisphere, it affects people on an individual basis as well.

Facts about drug trafficking and the movement of drugs in the United States include:

  • Trafficking is a federal crime, meaning the laws dictating the criminal consequences are decided by Congress and apply to the whole country.
  • This is a felony crime, so it requires severe penalties or prison time.
  • There are many distinctions between trafficking and drug possession.

A few other facts about trafficking: 

  • Around 70% of offenders are U.S. citizens, despite much of their supply coming from other countries.
  • In 2016, nearly 85% of traffickers were males, with an average age of 36, based on data from border patrols. 
  • Increase in the number of people in the United States sentenced for heroin trafficking crimes in the past five years.
  • According to public officials, the top districts for most drug trafficking in the U.S. include the Western District of Texas, the Southern District of Texas, the District of Arizona, the Southern District of California, and the District of New Mexico. These are vital areas where a Mexican cartel might work to get drugs into the country.

Below, we into critical facts about the trafficking of illegal substances and significant drug trafficking organizations in the U.S.


Trafficking Laws

Again, federal law guides distribution and trafficking penalties. The sale, transport, and illegal import of controlled substances apply to fentanyl, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, and any federally unlawful drug.

  • Sentences for crimes relating to distribution and trafficking can range from 3 to 5 years in prison, but they can be much higher for large quantities. 
  • Charges related to trafficking and distribution are felonies, which are legally more severe than being charged with drug possession.
  • If you possess drugs and authorities catch you, there’s the possibility you could be charged with trafficking if law enforcement thinks you’re going to try to sell them.
  • Someone arrested with large quantities of drugs and cash is more likely to face distribution rather than possession charges.
  • Even a first-time drug trafficking offense can mean significant jail time and penalties.

The United States creates a massive demand for the flow of drugs into the country, unfortunately. A lot of this is due to the demand from heroin users, but other drugs are also part of trafficking and drug smuggling. 


How Do Drugs Get Into the U.S.?

According to the intelligence community and government officials, multiple entry points represent how drug smugglers get into the U.S. daily. For example:

  • In Latin America, there are known as transnational criminal organizations or TCOs responsible for drug trafficking. 
  • TCOs have become increasingly powerful and wealthy due to the desire of Americans to gain access to illicit drugs. 
  • In some parts of Latin American and Mexico, these groups compete with the government as leadership.

The vast majority of violence and criminal activities occurring in Mexico and Latin America result from the drug trade and these Mexican traffickers, which leads to the imbalance of the entire region. At record levels in recent months, it is primarily due to drug trafficking violence. 

  • More than 42,600 pounds of cocaine were seized in Fiscal Year 2020 from international drug traffickers. 
  • There were more than 5,220 pounds of heroin seizures and nearly 325,000 pounds of marijuana seizures. 
  • There were seizures of 156,900 pounds of methamphetamine and almost 4,000 pounds of fentanyl.

Many seizures at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other government agencies and law enforcement agencies are uncovered using technology, dogs, and behavioral observation.

  • Drug smuggling might occur in tractor-trailers, cars, or even in people and often relates to human trafficking as well. 
  • The Mexican drug trafficking organizations that bring drugs over the border also create tunnels and even use drones to move their shipments into the U.S.
  • Along with the land border, there are maritime means used by Mexican drug cartels to get drug shipments into the country via water-based ports of entry. For example, illegal drugs go in shipping containers or small freighters. Private watercraft, fast boats, and even submarines can be part of drug smuggling via the water by Mexican drug cartels. 


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China’s Role in Trafficking Drugs to America

China is also part of the trafficking of illicit and dangerous drugs to the country, and a Mexican cartel is involved. The Drug Enforcement Administration has worked in recent years to reduce the drugs flowing in from China. 

  • China’s illegal drug trade focuses on fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. 
  • Many vendors in the country sell synthetic opioids not only to traffickers that are going to move the products into the U.S., but they also sell them within their country.
  • According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the United States consumes around 85% of all opioids, including synthetic drugs and naturally-derived drugs in the world. There are tens of thousands of deaths each year as a result. 
  • Opioid overdoses have quadrupled in the past two decades. Many health professionals blame the declines in life expectancy among men and women in the U.S. on opioids.
  • Drug cartels used to wait around for poppies to grow, and they would harvest them. Now, they can use precursor chemicals and quickly and cheaply create batches of fentanyl in labs.
  • Fentanyl easily crosses the blood-brain barrier of the user. Binding to opioid receptors, it floods the brain with dopamine. There’s an intense euphoria or high.
  • Unfortunately, fentanyl is highly potent and suppresses breathing and heart rate. A lethal dose of fentanyl for the majority of people is only around two milligrams. 
  • If you were to view that amount in a test tube, it would look like a few individual grains of salt.

There are also similar drugs like carfentanil, used medically, primarily as elephant tranquilizers. Carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl and 10,000 times more than morphine.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has confronted China about synthetic opioid drug supply and drug trafficking activities. In response, China did start regulating fentanyl and its derivatives more strictly. Despite these efforts, it’s difficult to enforce any of this.


Drug Possession vs. Trafficking

If you’re facing legal charges for a drug trafficking conviction and related illegal activities, and federal agencies are often involved. It can be pretty easy in the eyes of drug laws to prove felony drug possession if you get arrested with drugs on your person. The intent to distribute is where it becomes more challenging. Expert criminal defense is often relied upon to show that someone was indicating an intention of drug dealing, particularly in large amounts.

Examples that might demonstrate you had an intention to sell include possession cash, mentioned above, but also accessories like scales or baggies.

Punishments for possession with an intent to distribute as your first offense drug trafficking charge might include probation. Still, only if you have under a certain amount of the drug — otherwise, the punishment for first-time drug trafficking offenders is from three up to 12 ½ years in prison.

Along with the risks of the drugs themselves, the growing problem is that drugs often contain other substances, making them even more harmful or deadly. There are also drugs like cocaine that now include fentanyl, and as we’ve seen in several high-profile instances, this is often fatal.

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug abuse, we encourage you to reach out to the treatment team at Opus Health to learn your options; please call 855-953-1345.

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