Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geographers and Drugs: A Survey of the Literature

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Geographers and Drugs: A Survey of the Literature

Article excerpt

The United Nations estimates that the illegal drug trade accounts for 1.5 percent of all money transiting through the global financial system (UNODC 2011). A quick perusal of a list of major drug-producing countries demonstrates a correlation with violent and longstanding conflict. The U.S., as the largest drug-consuming country, also has the dubious distinction of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

The illegal drug trade is clearly integral to our understanding of contemporary geopolitics, political economy, and society, yet this topic has been relatively neglected by geography. Geographers have conducted research on illegal drugs, but sparingly and in scattershot fashion. In this review paper, we examine this literature to date, focusing because of space limitations on major works in the English-language literature. Though limited, this literature has made valuable contributions to the study of the agricultural and industrial production, distribution and trafficking, geopolitics, and consumption of illegal drugs. In what follows, we summarize this literature and offer some suggestions on where geographers could make further contributions.

To start, a fundamental question must be considered: what substances are considered "drugs"? While it is tempting to think that the term is defined by pharmacological factors--as substances that induce psychoactive experiences or changes in the user's consciousness--this is not necessarily so. Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, the world's most popular psychoactive compounds, are not generally referred to as drugs, and neither are plant-based deliriants such as datura or belladonna. Thus the term "drugs" is best understood not as referring to a category of substances with psychoactive effects, but in its common usage as a pejorative term demarcating substances neither socially nor legally sanctioned by particular societies (Jay 2010).

Demand for contraband substances fosters illegal markets. The geographic literature on drugs has focused predominantly on the substances that have gained commodity status by virtue of large-scale black market trade--primarily opium, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and other stimulants, and cannabis. Only scant research has been conducted on less commoditized substances such as hallucinogens.

We find the geography of illegal drugs particularly important as politicians and the public increasingly question the efficacy of the forty-plus-year-old war on drugs. Drugs are a major research focus in other social sciences, particularly in criminal justice, political science, and sociology, but the inherently geographic nature of the drug trade--in which commodities are produced in generally less-developed economies for consumption elsewhere--is deserving of far greater attention by geographers. The geographic coverage of the drug trade has left many blank spots on the map (Figure 1). In what follows, we demarcate what geographers have written on drugs and what more can be done.


The diffusion and production of drug crops has been one central focus of geographic research on illegal drugs. This literature primarily addressed a few key questions: why production occurs where it does, why local people engage in production, and how this affects their lives and environment.


Of all the drug commodities, coca and cocaine have attracted the most attention. Since the 1970s, geographers have studied the diffusion of coca, particularly through the lens of political ecology (South 1977; Eastwood and Pollard 1987; Bradley and Millington 2008). Coca production in Peru and Bolivia is rooted in long-standing indigenous use, with cultural, religious, social, medicinal, and economic importance (South 1977; Eastwood and Pollard 1987). Geographic conditions favorable to illicit coca cultivation include suitable soil and climate, and large, remote stretches of land with little to no state presence (Allen 2005). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.