Marijuana and cocaine are two of the most popular illicit drugs consumed in the United States. Estimates from the Office of National Drug Policy indicate that, as of 2005, a growing number of Americans are using either marijuana or cocaine or both. According to their official numbers there are around 11 million Americans who are at least occasional users of marijuana or hashish and anywhere from 2.6 to 6 million Americans who are at least occasional cocaine users. To supply them there are sophisticated and expansive commercial networks that produce, process, distribute and sell these drugs. However, the networks that are responsible for the majority of marijuana and cocaine available in the United States, while similar in some ways, exhibit important differences. Marijuana and cocaine production and distribution networks each generally follow two basic models. Both drugs' networks are hierarchical and have a one-to-many architecture, but differ greatly with regard to the geographic locations of the central nodes, the geographic scale of the networks, the total number of nodes and in the degree of centralized control over the networks.

Both marijuana and cocaine belong to that class of drugs that are extracted from plants as opposed to being synthesized from chemical precursors. Both require substantial farming for mass production and their growing area is important. The location of production is generally also the location of the central node in both drugs' networks. These central nodes lie at the top of the network hierarchy and may or may not exercise direct control over the other nodes in the network that deal with distribution and sale.

Marijuana production is spread around the world. Some important locations of large-scale production are the United States, Canada, Mexico and Morocco. Different production locations are known for various "brands" or types having varying potency. Marijuana generally comes in two basic types--potent high grade and less potent low grade. High grade marijuana tends to be produced, distributed and sold in relatively small quantities, typically a few pounds or less. It most often originates in small scale domestic indoor and outdoor growing operations. Low grade marijuana (and cocaine) is most often produced and distributed by the ton and originates in large outdoor growing operations.

In contrast to marijuana, cocaine production is concentrated in Latin America with Colombia producing around 75% of the world's supply. Cocaine production, unlike marijuana, requires processing to transform it into a sellable product. Coca plants are grown and harvested and prepared for chemical processing by cutting, drying (if necessary) and separating parts with a low concentration of the active ingredient. The drug is extracted through a chemical process. In the last step it is sized, checked for quality, packaged, and sometimes converted into another form such as crack.

Marijuana is distributed through two basic kinds of networks. The first is a small, localized network in which the product typically travels no more than a couple hundred miles and which has relatively few nodes. The other is a large network covering a wide area in which the product typically traverses international borders and has a relatively large number of nodes. The wholesale market for marijuana and cocaine exists on a variety of levels. Typically a "wholesale" purchase, i.e. the transfer of a quantity of marijuana from one network node to another node with intent to further distribute, would consist of anything more than a quarter-pound (113.4g). Similar to the second type of marijuana distribution network, cocaine is generally distributed through a large international network with a relatively large number of nodes.

Higher grade marijuana tends to be distributed in a network that is smaller due to the nature of the product and to the nature of the grower and his/her production scale. The higher the potency, the less must be smoked to achieve the desired effects. High grade marijuana usually is produced and distributed through small and fairly localized networks. However, it is occasionally also imported into the United States on a small scale from Canada or in some rare instances from the tropics and Mexico. Where a pound of low grade can sell for $500 wholesale, high grade marijuana can bring up to several thousand dollars per pound. Often, the high grade marijuana is grown indoors by individuals or small groups that tend to be otherwise law-abiding citizens who do not engage in violence or strong arm tactics in marijuana dealing. In the majority of cases, a local grower will or sell cannabis to "distributors". Distributors will take between one ounce and one pound and then divide it up and sell it to street-sellers. Thus it is common for these small type 1 marijuana networks to be no more than 4 nodes from producer to consumer.

Low grade marijuana, also known as "dirt" or "schwag" is commonly distributed in much larger networks than those used to distribute high grade marijuana. These networks are larger both in geographic scale and in number of nodes between producer and consumer. The largest networks will host transactions between the top-most or center-most nodes involving multi-ton quantities. Such transactions are typically executed by large criminal organizations involved in the distribution and sale of a variety of illicit drugs and that work with other national and international crime organizations. Since these networks usually are international, it is common for professional smugglers to be employed to help with packing and shipping across international borders, particularly the Mexico-US border. Furthermore, in contrast to small, localized networks distributing high grade marijuana, many of these large traffickers of low grade marijuana are also associated with violence and gangs.

Cocaine distribution networks, like marijuana distribution networks, generally employ one of two basic models. Both have a one-to-many architecture, have large numbers of nodes and are multi-national in geographic scale, but differ in the amount of centralized control over distribution exercised by the cocaine producer or central node. A network with a high degree of centralized control is characterized by having a grower/manufacturer who uses his own men to smuggle, store, and distribute the narcotics. A network with a low degree of centralized control utilizes local gangs and other localized criminal organizations as their smuggling, storage, and distribution channels. The grower/manufacturer is at the center of the network, with satellite organizations that may provide certain services like smuggling, and then a multitude of separate groups, each with its own function and sub-hierarchy.

The connection between the central network node and the next network node in cocaine distribution requires smuggling from the origin of production to the country where final sale and consumption will take place. In both network models, smuggling is accomplished utilizing small boats or yachts, air vehicles, and is usually carried out by gangs paid with a specified quantity of the product. Under the centralized, high-control model these gangs have a direct affiliation and allegiance with a cocaine producing cartel and are under some form of direct control. Under the decentralized model, these gangs and organizations have only a commercial relationship with the cocaine producer.

Larger gangs with greater financial resources will often rely on boats to smuggle cocaine. The "go-fast" boat is the generic name for the cocaine smuggling boat of choice in many parts of the world since the 1990s. They are stealthy, fast, reliable, and very difficult to intercept using conventional drug interdiction craft. As a result, Coast Guards are developing their own high-speed craft and also using helicopters. The Coast Guard go-fast boat is equipped with radar and more powerful engines and is also armed with several types of non-lethal weapons that can disable the boats of smugglers. Helicopters are equipped with sniper rifles which can be used to disable the motors of the go-fast boat. With this important method of transport under threat, smugglers look increasingly to other methods for securing this all-important initial connection of nodes in their distribution network. Consequently, many smugglers are looking to other methods of transport. Many also fly, either on private airplanes or on regularly scheduled airlines, to transport their wares or attempt to conceal the cocaine inside legally traded goods. Once cocaine arrives in the country of consumption, its further distribution network nodes generally relies on the same methods of intra-national connection or transportation as marijuana, namely car or truck.

Smaller gangs will often send out a "mule", often a young, disadvantaged person, with quantities of cocaine strapped to the body or hidden in his or her bags. If the mule is not caught by border authorities or police, the gangs stand to gain the majority of the profits. If the mule is caught however, gangs will sever all ties and he or she will usually stand trial for trafficking alone.

Wholesalers in the destination country routinely accept the cocaine (and sometimes other drugs) from the smugglers, cut it, and sell it to the distribution chain or chains. For the most part, wholesalers are not individuals. They are typically an expansional endeavor by established criminal organizations, especially organized crime and, to a lesser extent, street gangs. The more experienced and sophisticated groups may re-manufacture the wares to increase or decrease the purity, mixing it, or altering the chemical composition of the material.

For both marijuana and cocaine, "street" selling is the connection between the last node in the distribution network and the consumer of the drug. The circumstances of this final connection and the relationship of seller to consumer vary widely for both marijuana and cocaine networks. Dealers may be personal friends or acquaintances or anonymous persons marketing drugs on the street, in private homes, at bars and night clubs or at other events.

The existence of marijuana and cocaine distribution networks, both local and non-local in scale, and with both centralized and decentralized control, is driven mainly by the economics of drug prohibition. Huge profits are available due to the collision of high demand for the drugs with harsh laws that attempt to prohibit their supply and use. The vast profits on offer mean that the trade is run by highly organized, hierarchical and sometimes violent criminal networks.
© 2008 David Yates