The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), has released its 2018 threat assessment reviewing the top drug and organized crime risks to the U.S., noting that as national and international laws related to marijuana fluctuate – going to illegal to legal for medicinal or personal uses – it could further open the door for small and larger illicit networks to move product and launder money.

The report also highlighted a chilling trend: Illicit drugs, as well as the transnational and domestic criminal organizations that traffic them, continue to represent significant threats to public health, law enforcement, and national security in the United States.

These groups are also getting more creative to muddy their money trails by taking funds into virtual worlds and hiding behind seemingly anonymous currencies and shell companies – all significant stumbling blocks to domestic and international investigative agencies trying to identify all the pieces of the financial puzzle underpinning illicit drug supply chains.

In 2016, approximately 174 people died every day from drug poisoning, outnumbering deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide.

“This report underscores the scope and magnitude of the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States,” said Acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon. “This report highlights the necessity of using all the tools at our disposal to fight this epidemic, and we must remain steadfast in our mission to combat all dangerous drugs of abuse.”

The National Drug Threat Assessment provides a yearly assessment of the many challenges local communities face related to drug abuse and drug trafficking and the financial machinations of the transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to move their ill-gotten proceeds and keep their nefarious networks running.

Highlights in the report include usage and trafficking trends for drugs such as prescription drugs, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and the hundreds of synthetic drugs.

The report also noted that the divergence in state and local marijuana laws – some states have medical and personal use laws – complicate enforcement and open the door for consumers to accidentally support illicit networks.

“Money-laundering and the opportunities the state-marijuana businesses afford for DTOs and others to launder money through U.S. banks is a significant concern,” the report stated. “The ability to regulate and monitor the capacity of the various sizes and types of personal grows provides opportunity for individuals and DTOs to profit from production and sales under the guise of legality.”

Some other takeaways include:

  • Overall, transnational criminal organizations’ (TCOs) primary methods for laundering illicit proceeds have largely remained the same over the past several years. However, the amount of bulk cash seized has been steadily decreasing. This is a possible indication of TCOs’ increasing reliance on innovative money laundering methods.
  • Virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, are becoming increasingly mainstream and offer traffickers a relatively secure method for moving illicit proceeds around the world with much less risk compared to traditional methods.
  • Controlled prescription drugs remain responsible for the largest number of overdose deaths of any illicit drug class since 2001. These drugs are the second most commonly abused substance. Traffickers are now disguising other opioids as controlled prescription drugs to gain access to this market.
  • Mexican transnational criminal organizations, including the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel, remain the greatest criminal drug threat in the United States. The cartels are the principal wholesale drug sources for domestic gangs responsible for street-level distribution.
  • National and neighborhood-based street gangs and prison gangs continue to dominate the market for the street sales and distribution of illicit drugs in their respective territories throughout the country. Drug trafficking remains the major income source for gangs. (
  • Asian TCOs: Asian TCOs specialize in international money laundering by transferring funds to and from China and Hong Kong through the use of front companies and other money laundering methods.
  • Heroin-related drug-poisoning deaths almost doubled between 2013 and 2016. This has been exacerbated by the increased adulteration of heroin with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
  • Heroin available in U.S. markets is primarily sourced from Mexico, where opium poppy cultivation and heroin production have both increased significantly in recent years.

The DEA, and the rest of the U.S. government, is trying to change the rising pace of drug-fueled crime and intercept the profits for the plethora of criminal threats in play.

This month, the Justice Department announced new measures to dismantle transnational criminal organizations with the creation of a Transnational Organized Crime Task Force, a cadre of prosecutors who will coordinate the DOJ’s efforts to fight transnational organized crime.

The task force will focus on top transnational organized crime threats that include MS-13, Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, the Sinaloa Cartel, Clan del Golfo and Lebanese Hezbollah, a majority of which are included in DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment.