Skip to main content

Representing the Narcotics Supply Chain as a Graph


Controlled substances (better named “controlling substances”) have a colorful, complex, and controversial history. Drugs abuse, addiction, and drug policy are charged topics that I will throughly avoid attempting to unpack here. This is a discussion of graphs and supply chains.


Two former U. S. Drug Czars are claiming the federal government should “bring back the war on drugs” [1]. I have included a dissenting response article [2] by Jacob Sullum that originally appeared in Forbes [3]. The increasing popularity of heroin and the deaths related to the drug alarm Bennett and Walters, the proponents of increased focus on supply-side restrictions. Their claim is relatively simple: when crack and cocaine use rose in the 80’s and 90’s, the inner city’s salvation came from law enforcement’s focus on supply; we need to do the same today. Sullum calls this the wrong approach because of government’s inherent inability to enforce prohibitions on narcotics. If we set aside politicized thoughts and consider the narcotics industry as a graph, we might better understand who is right.

If cocaine were attributed to one decade, it would be the 80’s; if were attributed to one name, it would be Pablo Escobar. Escobar was able to organize and maintain a vertically integrated cartel (more clearly: a pseudo-monopoly) [4].  In this market, the coco plant growers of Perú and Bolivia are connected to dealers in the U. S. under one authority. This encourages the graph-savvy Info 2040 student to ponder the existence of a gatekeeper node (or group of nodes). If such a bottle neck existed — such as a few main store-houses in the U. S. or a graphically “narrow” portion of a transit route in Central America or even Escobar himself — then targeted law enforcement on those nodes could have actually impacted the availability of narcotics to consumers.

In defense of Sullum’s skepticism, there may not exist anything close to a gatekeeper node in the modern market. Much law enforcement activity has centered around El Chapo, but he does not oversee an integrated supply chain as Escobar did. Moreover, the concern is with heroin and not cocaine. Sullum illustrates how modern measures to combat heroin consumption have failed, but I am not totally convinced restricting the supply is impossible. It is conceivable that there exists a chokepoint the supply chain must pass through. Precursor for heroin is opium and that largely comes from overseas regions such as Afghanistan. Researching the transatlantic supply chain to represent as a graph could yield powerful insights into the narcotics industry.


I realized a previous blog post contains similar material. “Finding Pressure Points in Modern Crime Networks” covers the use of modern technology to enforce drug policy. However, this post details important changes to the narcotics industry in recent decades and discusses how the supply chain, not individuals, could be represented as a graph. 


Leave a Reply

Blogging Calendar

September 2015