All-Time High European Cocaine Supply Underlines Rationale for Fair Trade

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Cocaine, most widely used illicit stimulant in European Union countries, is surging in the drug supply. With coca cultivated mostly in South American countries, massive loads of cocaine are shipped to Europe, with the original producers seeing little of the profits.

Published on June 6, the 2019 European Drug Report shows that both the number of cocaine seizures and the volumes seized are at an all-time high. In 2017, 104,000 seizures of cocaine were recorded, totaling 140.4 tonnes in weight—double the total amount seized just the year before. Crack cocaine seizures are far lower, which the report attributes to its European-based manufacturing origin. Compounding the sheer unprecedented quantities, retail-level cocaine is the purest it’s been in a decade, meaning that it can be cut with more additives and distributed more widely.

Source: European Drug Report 2019

The massive scale on which Europe is consuming, or at least receiving, a product mostly cultivated and prepared by financially-precarious South American drug workers highlights the transformative potential of a fair trade market. Prohibition and crop eradication efforts threaten Colombians’ livelihood. And to be clear, cocaine production isn’t going anywhere, despite the drug war: Production tripled in Colombia from 2013 to 2016. Peru and Bolivia are also seeing rising production, though to a lesser degree.

The 2019 Global Drug Survey (GDS) authors noted that the revenue generated by the global trade could “be more fairly distributed to producers and local healthcare, education, and social programs within producer and consumer countries.”

“There is a massive and connected unofficial economic system”—the cocaine trade that is worth up to $143 billion worldwide—”from which we all benefit but only the most vulnerable pay the price,” wrote Violeta Ayala, a filmmaker from the Bolivarian city of Cochabama, which is just three hours by car from a jungle where the coca leaf grows freely. From the perspective of someone from communities impacted by the US-led assault on coca plantations, she knows how drug workers “feed the world’s economy, where the people who benefit the most are still the rich white bankers of the West, who clean all the drug money.”

And people who use cocaine are showing increasing approval of transforming the trade in favor of workers’ wellbeing. The GDS survey found that 70 percent of participants who recently used cocaine would support a regulated market to ensure producers get their fair share of the profits.

While the situation for producers remains grim, the European Drug Report found that in a competitive market, European distributors are restructuring how they get their products into the hands of consumers. Occurring “at the middle and retail level,” the European-end of the supply chain is becoming increasingly “fragmented, looser and more horizontal organisational structures”—in contrast to top-down cartel hierarchies that reign on the production end (think: El Chapo).

Some of these strategies have included so-called “cocaine-exclusive call-centres,” which are facilitated by smartphones—a method the report dubs, “a potential ‘Uberisation’ of the cocaine trade” that aims to offer “additional services such as fast and flexible delivery options.”

It’s unclear if this ‘horizontal’ structure means more equitable distribution of capital for distributors. But if it’s anything like the exploitation built into Uber and other on-demand platforms, the answer will be in the negative.

A regulated market, as Filter has pointed out, could be a crucial step forward in addressing the inequities plaguing cocaine production across the world.


Photograph courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum

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