04/22/2014 05:54 EDT | Updated 06/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Your Drug Addiction Is Costing Poor People Their Lives

Nogales, right on the border of Arizona, feels a bit like a town where a modern day

Fist Full of Dollars could be filmed. It's full of cheap tacqueiras, dust and uncertainty. There is a heavy feel of suspension hanging over the place, with families and young labourers from all over Central America waiting for a chance to slip into the promised land. Desperation, of course, breeds economic opportunity and in the past decade, drug cartels have moved into the human smuggling business, adding a new edge of violence and risk.

As if the congestion of desperate families is not enough for this beleaguered region, the drug violence that permeates northern Mexico makes the situation even more devastating. Nogales is just a dusty and small part of an illegal international drug trade where black markets for counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs rake in an estimated $200 billion a year and marijuana pulls in a tidy $142 billion in sales a year. People sure love their drugs.

There are high costs, however, for this international appetite for drugs. And it's usually the poor and disenfranchised who pay these costs.

Take Cuidad Juarez, another Mexican border town. In 2010 there were over 3000 drug-related deaths. Or Columbia, where almost a quarter of a million people have died in the past 50 years due to drug conflict. Many were innocent bystanders, trapped in a relentless cycle of violence.

The recent arrest of El Chapo, one of Mexico's most notorious drug lords, revealed the extent of the wealth of those who profit from the violence and illegality. El Chapo facilitated the movement of cocaine from Columbia through to the United States. His net worth: $1 billion; in comparison, the average GDP of Mexico is less than $10,000.00.

While the production of cocaine may have decreased in Columbia, the problem doesn't go away as long as the demand exists. It just moves. The drug gangs have moved into neighbouring Peru and Bolivia, while Columbian cartels have moved into other illicit industries such as illegal mining. Drugs provide fuel for all manner of criminal activity.

And that is the thing about illegal trade, whether in drugs, human trafficking, poaching or illegal mining: it's about making money. To make this money, those who want it badly enough will do what it takes to get it. Intimidation, rape, murder. And this violence brings entire regions to a standstill. You can't develop a region where people are terrified to leave their houses because bodies are strung up on bridges as a warning.

The consequences of the drug trade spirals out internationally. It's not just Mexico that's affected.

Jamaica is another country that knows the cost of illegal trade all too well; a representative from the Caribbean Community speaking to the United Nations argued that "crime and corruption [has] a deleterious effect on the quest for development." Violence from these illegal activities ripples outwards, crippling most aspects of civil life.

And this is the thing about drugs: it predominately impacts poor communities, those populated by racial minorities or the marginalized. It is the poor who are coerced into trafficking drugs or who fall into the drug trade as a way to simply survive in the face of insurmountable poverty.

Closer to home, it's clearly not Rosedale or the Bridle Path that are reeling from the devastating impact of drugs. It's Martin Falls, an isolated reserve in Northern Ontario, where up to 80 per cent of the adults are addicted to oxycontin, and the community is currently struggling to fund its treatment programs that has successfully cut drug-related arrests from 174 in 2009 to 18 in 2012.

This isn't the growing of some pot plants in your closet; this is the politics of supply and demand, the cost of the buying and selling of drugs from dealers and criminal groups. Drugs provide fuel for all manner of criminal activity. It impacts women and girls (and sometimes men) who are forced into the sex trades by criminal gangs. Criminal gangs who traffic drugs often traffic other goods such as ivory (which is destroying the rhino and elephant population) and even people in the name of making money. Capitalism at its finest.

The cost of the global appetite for drugs is high and the burden is disproportionately felt by the poor. It's the man who passes out in front of my apartment on a weekly basis. It's the victims of beheadings in Mexico. It's the families left impoverished while a small, violent elite makes millions. When entire communities live in fear of drug cartels, it's time to radically rethink how we view drugs.

Drugs aren't cool. Or edgy. This is supply and demand at its most brutal and the poor are the ones paying the price.


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