I heard a claim from a guy in my class during high school, which was like 6 years ago or so, saying that the three 'biggest markets' in the world are drugs, sex and weapons. It of course implied quite a bit about human nature, and the state of the world.

I am curious if there was any truth in that statement? Is it those three that have most revenue, most users, or most money circling about in, or in any other interpretable way being 'three biggest'?

That is not an overly trustworthy site, but it claims

Wildlife trade, as many of you may know, is the third largest black market after drugs and guns.

There they make an estimate on how big the 'shadow markets' are. Which is related to the topic as well as drugs, weapons and sex usually are illegal.

Region World Minimum 18.54 Maximum 27.74

The black market is assumed to be somewhere between 18% to 28% of GPD. How would that compare to legal market then?

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    Do you have a notable source for this claim? If so, please cite it.
    – 410 gone
    Feb 8, 2013 at 10:26
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    Follow the green, which industries spent the most amount of money to lobbying (US Lobbies example) Drugs, Weapons, Oil... Feb 8, 2013 at 12:55
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    Welcome to Skeptics! We want to focus our attention on doubtful claims that are widely held or are made by notable people. Please provide some references to places where this claim is being made. In particular, is it "Which are the largest markets?" or "Which are the largest BLACKmarkets?"
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 8, 2013 at 14:42
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    I've heard (1) oil, (2) coffee
    – gerrit
    Feb 8, 2013 at 14:51
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    @Hendrik - wasn't GE the biggest lobbyist in USA? They mostly do appliances (though some weapons too)
    – user5341
    Feb 8, 2013 at 16:54

1 Answer 1


Even though the source is a "I heard from a guy that..." I still enjoyed looking up what is the truth behind such a claim.

I found this BusinessPundit article, which mixes legal and illegal profits into one big list:

Their top 3 are:

  1. Illicit Drugs
  2. Defense
  3. Prostitution (in which they separated human trafficking, which usually goes hand in hand.

Noteworthy other candidates are: Oil, Counterfeiting, Banking, Sports, Gambling

This 24/7 Wall St article just specifies the top international criminal businesses:

Their top 3 are:

  1. Illicit Drugs
  2. Human Trafficking (including trafficking for prostitution)
  3. Wildlife

with other noteworthy runner-ups being: Counterfeiting, human organs, diamonds, timber, fish

So it seems your old buddy was right.

But, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states states that:

"In 2009 it was estimated to generate $870 billion - an amount equal to 1.5 per cent of global GDP."

Another "funny" anecdote I found about how profitable the drugs trade on this PBS article:

"The average drug trafficking organization, meaning from Medellin to the streets of New York, could afford to lose 90% of its profit and still be profitable," says Robert Stutman, a former DEA Agent. "Now think of the analogy. GM builds a million Chevrolets a year. Doesn't sell 900,000 of them and still comes out profitable. That is a hell of a business, man. That is the dope business."

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    The BusinessPundit article's ordering is all over the place. It puts drugs first at $300b. It puts defense second at $1.15t. Oil (#4) it admits it can't quantify, maybe 2.5t. Illegal gambling it puts at $380b. Just the counterfeits listed add up to $329b. I don't think the list is supposed to be ordered.
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 8, 2013 at 23:04
  • I guess the question was a bit weak, but thanks for a decent answer to my question anyways. The implications of it is tbh more interesting than the answer itself. I guess this is not the place to dive further into it though.
    – Wertilq
    Feb 9, 2013 at 14:18
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    What about Housing? For most people rent/mortgage payments make up a substantial percent of their outgoings, should that not appear in the list?
    – Nick
    Feb 11, 2013 at 13:01

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