Yvon Dandurand

The International Centre for Criminal Law Reform (ICCLR) just released a new study on Law Enforcement Strategies to Disrupt Illicit Drug Markets.[1] The study, funded by Public Safety Canada, reviews the empirical research on various illicit drug market disruption strategies used by law enforcement, their stated goals and concrete objectives, the methods they are based on, their impact on drug markets, and their other consequences. From a policy perspective as well as from a cost-benefit point of view, it matters to know whether illicit drug market disruptions produced by law enforcement initiatives have a lasting and substantial effect on these markets. The report can hopefully contribute to a constructive discussion of how law enforcement approaches can be transformed to reduce the harm caused by the illicit drug markets and the violence and crime caused by the criminal organizations involved in them.

The market disruption strategies reviewed in this report are unfortunately not very promising. In fact, these interventions typically had a very limited effect on drug markets or on the availability of illicit drugs. None of them seemed to have had a lasting impact on illicit drug markets and very few of them appeared to have an impact on organized crime groups or networks that exploit and profit from these markets. In brief, illicit drug markets invariably prove themselves resilient and flexible, and they either promptly adapt to change and reconfigure or displace themselves. Furthermore, law enforcement disruption strategies often risk having a detrimental impact on affected communities, whether from a public health, quality of life, violence prevention, or police-community relation perspective.

Police interference with or disruption of illicit drug markets are most likely seen by criminal groups as simply part of a business risk to be mitigated and managed: the cost of doing business. Disruptions seem to work like a tax, imposing additional costs on suppliers, who then pass them on to drug users when necessary. Disruptive law enforcement actions certainly engender greater sophistication on the part of organized crime groups, including the use of various technologies and methods to anticipate and foil disruption activities. Disruption also tends to generate violence, particularly among competing criminal groups for whom the weakening of one organization by a police intervention is an opportunity to grow their own business, or within a criminal organization where individuals and factions compete for ascendency following the arrest or neutralization of prominent group members. Additionally, disruption activities can increase the risk of police corruption, as criminal organizations attempt to bribe their way out of sporadic police interventions or, better still from their point of view, direct police interventions against their competitors.

There is also a need to fundamentally rethink drug market enforcement strategies and priorities in light of the growing dominance of online markets. As the markets become increasingly global, thanks in part to the internet, stronger online regulation and enforcement are needed, as well as an entirely new level of international law enforcement cooperation. As noted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, it is becoming inescapably clear that drug policy and drug market enforcement strategies need “a reset to ensure that responses can be designed both to suppress illegal drug trafficking and the criminal groups involved, and to reduce the harms that come from the illicit trade in narcotic”.[2]

The continued proliferation of illicit drugs, organized crime’s penetration of every sector of social, commercial and economic activity, as well as the never-ending cycle of gang violence are probably proof enough of the relative failure of existing disruption strategies to seriously confront organized crime and control illicit drug markets. The central role of organized crime in most drug markets is regularly acknowledged but poorly tackled. As Professor Nikos Passas once remarked during an international conference on organized crime, law enforcement organizations have learned to “fake success”, thus avoiding accountability for misguided and ineffective enforcement policies and strategies.

Despite some residual resistance within law enforcement agencies, there is growing support among them for rethinking enforcement strategies and approaches in order to focus on managing drug markets in a way that minimizes the various associated harms instead of compounding them. Instead of assuming that multiplying arrests, seizures and prosecutions necessarily have a positive impact on individuals and communities, there is a growing willingness to apply harm reduction principles to the policing of drug markets and adopt a community damage limitation approach. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, for example, officially subscribed to the four-pillars approach to the opioid crisis. It also agreed that decriminalization of simple possession of drugs could help reduce the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use, while at the same time reiterating its commitment to “combatting organized crime and disrupting the supply of harmful substances coming into our communities by targeting drug trafficking and illegal production and importation” (CACP, 2020). Earlier this year, a resolution of the International Association of Chiefs of Police made reference to the need for law enforcement agencies to grapple with the epidemic of opioid overdoses and proposed a paradigm shift toward a public health approach to substance use and prevention. The resolution calls for the prioritization of actions against drug traffickers who pose the greatest threat to our communities and exacerbate the  drug problem by employing violence to facilitate the drug trade.

The Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy[3] prioritizes the following important law enforcement measures: increasing law enforcement’s capacity to target the involvement of organized crime in making and distributing illegal drugs; preventing the cross-border movement of illegal drugs; reducing the possibility for controlled substances to be diverted from otherwise legal activities; preventing money laundering and stopping the flow of money organized crime makes from the illegal drug trade. These are clear objectives and all of them call for strategic and sustained actions instead of temporary disruptions of illicit drug markets. Unfortunately, the strategy does not specify how these goals are to be achieved.

As John Coyne and Teagan Westendorf recently concluded:

“It’s easy to declare the need for a new strategy, but that would imply that there are clear-cut alternatives, and there aren’t any. Criminal markets are, by their nature, dark markets. Their scope and reach are opaque, as are their global supply and value chains. More information is needed if we’re to develop a new or adapted strategy to disrupt illicit drug supply.”[4]

Deeper research is required on organized crime and illicit markets in general and, specifically, on criminal networks, how they operate and what could make them vulnerable to police interventions.


[1] Dandurand, Y. (2021). Law Enforcement Strategies to Disrupt Illicit Drug Markets : Literature Review. Vancouver : International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy. https://icclr.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Dandurand_Law-Enforcement-Strategies-to-Disrupt-Illicit-Drug-Markets_Nov-15-2021.pdf?x96127

[2] Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (2021). Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (2021). The Global Illicit Economy: Trajectories of transnational organized crime, Geneva: GITOC, p. 102. https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/The-Global-Illicit-Economy-GITOC-High.pdf

[3] Government of Canada (2018). Canadian drugs and substances strategy. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/canadian-drugs-substances-strategy.html

[4] Coyne, J. & Westendorf, T. (2021). “High rollers”: A Study of criminal profits along Australia’s heroin and methamphetamine supply chains. Barton : Australian Strategic Study Institute. https://apo.org.au/node/311601

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash.

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