Intersectionality between Substance Use and Human Trafficking

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Written by Noël Crowley

Substance use and human trafficking

The intersection between substance use and human trafficking is not a new phenomenon. It is widely accepted that substance use is a vulnerability factor that may leave individuals more susceptible to human trafficking. However, there are other surprising connections between the two that may lesser known.

Substance use is defined as excessive use of a drug in a way that is detrimental to self, society, or both. Substance use does not necessarily mean that someone has an addiction, but it is implied that the individual does have a physical and psychological dependence. Substances, such as heroin, cocaine, and benzodiazepines (among others) are widely utilized in human trafficking. A survey of US survivors of sex trafficking survivors found that 84.3 percent used substances during their trafficking exploitation.


There is a significant stigma associated with substance use, not unlike the stigma associated with human trafficking. The stigmatization associated with substance use disorders can create obstacles to identifying other vulnerability factors or dangerous situations. The systemic biases of community members, healthcare providers, and law enforcement towards people who use substances may inhibit their ability or willingness to recognize signs of human trafficking. The misunderstanding of the intersection between substance use and human trafficking can farther the stigma that society has towards those impacted as they may appear to be hostile or uncooperative as defensive mechanisms or results of the traumas they’ve endured.

Previous Substance Use

Individuals that have struggled with substance use and/or addiction may have an increased vulnerability to being trafficked. They may be targeted due to their dependence through the enticement of a promise of substances or money by traffickers. Additionally, traffickers have been shown to recruit directly from substance use disorder treatment facilities, whether with direct or indirect methods such as working alongside the staff or opening the center as a method to access vulnerable people.

Traffickers will use substances as a means of control. If the trafficked individual is addicted to substances, the trafficker can withhold the drugs to coerce the survivor into engaging in trafficking activities to get their next high or prevent a painful withdrawal. Someone who uses drugs may be considered “less credible” by health care professionals or law enforcement, and therefore, not viewed from a trauma-informed lens of victimization, thus furthering their distrust in systems that are supposed to protect them.

According to a journal from, “Traffickers who exploited victims for the purpose of sex supplied substances to victims as a key tool to maintain their control and ensure a system that enabled traffickers to keep victims working for them.” In one recent instance, traffickers have been accused of using substance use issues to target individuals into labor trafficking. The case, which is still pending before a U.S. civil court, involved “traffickers allegedly targeted people with substance use issues who were court-mandated to recovery facilities in lieu of prison sentences and forced them to work in chicken processing, sheet metal fabrication, and other dangerous work”.

Make them dependent

Traffickers have also been known to get their victims addicted as a means of control, or to make them easier to “manage” for sex or labor trafficking. Traffickers use substances in hopes that they will force the victim to develop an addiction which makes them more vulnerable to additional trauma, decreases escape attempts, and encourage illicit drug production and distribution, thus additionally serving the trafficker’s financial intents. Traffickers will use substances as a “reward” for productivity, intensifying the quantity, desire to use, and amount which all contribute to an addiction. Alternately, some traffickers have been known to withhold substances as a power play, then convincing the victim that they’ve been empowered from addiction, all thanks to the trafficker. While an outsider recognizes the serious power differential and manipulation of these actions, someone being trafficked may not realize what is happening. Or they may find that it’s easier to comply than risk their life by conflicting with the trafficker.


While we’ve briefly discussed how the traffickers utilize substances to coerce, recruit, and control individuals, one aspect that many don’t consider is the use of substances to cope with the trauma of being trafficked. Trafficking survivors experience physical and psychological traumas during their time with their trafficker and after leaving the trafficking situation. Often, they’re limited to coping in unhealthy manners, such as substance use. Trafficking survivors may experience stigma and inaccessibility to services such as therapy and case management, so use of substances (that are often easier to obtain) to manage the aftermath and trauma of their trafficking experiences.

What can we do?

It’s important that trafficking survivors with substance use issues are appropriately identified with proper screening and assessment tools. Once they’ve been identified, referral to ethical treatment for trauma-informed care promotes recovery. If the survivors are not interested in treatment, this must be respected, and harm reduction practices may be utilized to lessen the risk of serious injury or death. In serving individuals at the intersection of human trafficking and substance use issues, a housing-first model should be utilized to ensure their safe to begin to heal.

Treatment approaches should be person-centered and respect the person’s right to self-determination. They’re working on healing from significant trauma associated with their substance use and trafficking experiences. Providing survivors with wraparound services or referrals is best practice. Also, equipping providers with the knowledge and skill to appropriately utilize evidence-based practice specific to substance use and human trafficking and openly communicate with other providers helps to prevent re-traumatization. Survivors are deserving of autonomy, and professionals have an ethical responsibility to listen to them and respect their choices.