What happens when a former Navy SEAL and a former CIA officer get together and decide to study the drug trade? A splendid and gripping documentary series.
The Bussiness of Drugs, which premiers today on NETFLIX, offers an original approach to the international drug trade. Created and produced by former Navy SEAL and journalist Kaj Larsen and hosted by former CIA operations officer Amaryllis Fox, the six-episode series examines the illicit global narco-trafficking trade through an economic and business lens.
From the jungle labs of Colombia to the mountains of Myanmar to war-torn Afghanistan to Africa, Larsen and Fox focus on six narcotics (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, cannabis, synthetics, and opioids). Tracing these drugs’ journey from the source country to the end-user, the Business of Drugs reveals a murky world of profit, violence, graft, addiction, social injustice, and prison.
Who profits and who loses from a multi-billion dollar global enterprise? By understanding narcotrafficking, through a business lens, the series reveals the modern drug cartels as highly organized multinational corporations akin to well-known corporate giants.
The economics of the drug business might be the primary focus of the series, but it isn’t the sole one. To understand the effects and popularity of drugs, one has to understand the science behind them. By interviewing several experts from a wide range of fields, Larsen and Fox succeed in identifying and translating the complex biochemical side-effects of drugs on the human body.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Larsen and Fox study the connection of the drug trade to social injustice in the U.S. Did you know that every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession? Were you aware that minorities are disproportionally affected by the drug trade with almost 80 percent of people serving time for a federal drug offense being Black or Latino?
With a price tag of approximately $1 trillion since 1971, when the U.S. government started the War on Drugs, the drug trade is still pertinent even if it’s not on the headlines.
The series, which was produced with Zero Point Zero (Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown), is worth your time and attention.
SOFREP had the opportunity to interview Kaj Larsen before the release of the series.
What were the biggest hurdles while filming the show?
It’s funny, on the surface one of what might appear to be a big hurdle was actually just a testament to talent. I created the show with my incredible friend Amaryllis and unbeknownst to many, she was actually six months pregnant during a portion of the filming. At first, we were worried that it would be an impediment to what we wanted to do, but the truth is Amaryllis was tough and experienced in this realm. She had hunted down nuclear terrorists around the world as a CIA case officer when she was pregnant with her first child. So despite being pregnant she was able to get deep into the narcotrafficking world and access this incredible criminal enterprise. We would joke on the shoots that Gal Gadot filmed Wonder Woman when she was pregnant, but that was acting, Amaryllis is the real-life wonder woman. That being said, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t’ a little nervous. Amaryllis and her husband Bobby are some of my closest friends, and I felt responsible for her and their yet-to-be-born beautiful baby.
The real challenge was penetrating these fast criminal drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and gaining insight into their structure and personnel. By definition, these organizations exist in the shadows. Talking to us, especially on camera, letting us see their transportation methods, [and] the production of illicit drugs, was extremely dangerous. Many of the people could go to jail or be killed by their own organizations just for talking to us. Luckily I have spent a decade covering and gaining access to cartels. I have spent time making drugs in clandestine labs in places like Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Afghanistan. I was able to use many of my sources to help us gain entry into these murky worlds. My experience and knowledge of cartels, coupled with Amaryllis’s espionage skills I think was a differentiating factor in getting into these underground worlds.
What is the most effective form of drug smuggling in the U.S.?
It really depends on the drug and the route. In episode 1 we trace cocaine from leaf to street [sic]. It became obvious that the Colombian cartels had long ago outsourced distribution to the Mexican Cartels. This was a business decision with profound consequences like the resulting violence in Mexico [that is] killing tens of thousands of people annually.
When you look at narcotrafficking through the lens of economics, the way we did, you find that these cartels are essentially multinational corporations. And just like Amazon or Apple, they have complex supply chains with built-in redundancies. In the end, drugs are moved to the U.S. by sea, land, and air (my favorite acronym!). While maritime trafficking has taken more preeminence in the last couple of years, the other methods still have value and are moving lots of products. Also, it’s important to remember that something like the opioid crisis which we cover in the last episode, was a good old fashion domestic product. While the series does look at the importation of drugs like Fentanyl from China and India, the real genesis of the opioid crisis was drugs made by American pharmaceutical companies distributed through licit channels, like your friendly neighborhood doctor or dentist.
Who are the big players in the international and U.S. market nowadays?
The most important thing we learned while making the Business of Drugs series is how interconnected everything is. The Cartels or the supply side exists because of the consumers or demand. The U.S. is still the most lucrative market for drugs in the world, but that is quickly changing and the cartels are increasingly diversifying their business model and going global. Brazil is now the second biggest market for cocaine outside the U.S. There are Colombian restaurants popping up in West Africa. We tracked meth labs in Myanmar supplying markets in southeast Asia. It’s truly an international demand curve, and where there are customers, there will be drugs.
We also found that it’s not enough to look at the business from a strict lens of buyers and sellers. There is an entire industrial complex built around drugs and the war on drugs. The war on drugs has cost, by many estimates, over $1 trillion dollars in the U.S. alone. In the series, we really try and open the aperture and look at the total economics around the global narcotics industry. In doing so we found that it’s not just cartels vs cops. Government, militaries, media, all have a stake in this continued multi-billion dollar trade.
Any thoughts for a second season?
Looking at narcotrafficking through an economic lens revealed incredible new insights into how drug cartels and narcotrafficking works. It is a powerful and insightful analytical tool to understand these enigmatic worlds. In its highest manifestation, good journalism is intelligence gathering. Amaryllis and I are formerly of that business, and it was cool to use those same skills to do a deep dive into the global drug trade. I think it would be powerful to bring those skills to bear to understand other worlds, whether that’s issues of war and conflict or human trafficking. I spent half my career dedicated to fighting the Global War on Terror, and I’d love to continue to explore that world.