Society reserves a special kind of condemnation for the person who profits from selling drugs that might cause psychosis, overdose or death – among other outcomes. US President Donald Trump has called for the death penalty for drug dealers, many of whom he states will “have killed thousands of people in their lifetime”. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, President Duterte has been blamed for the state sponsored, extra judicial killings of thousands of drug suppliers and users.
There are many myths, which cloud people’s understanding of the risks associated with drugs. And the narrow stereotype of the violent, callous, profiteering drug dealer oversimplifies the everyday realities of people who buy, use and sell drugs. This, in turn, prevents police and governments from forming effective policies to tackle the issue.
Most drug transactions are for recreational drugs – primarily cannabis in countries such as the UK, but also a variety of “club” and “party” drugs. It’s likely that the main form of supply for these kinds of drugs is “social supply”; where drug users obtain their drugs from friends and acquaintances, who make little or no profit from the transaction.
Social suppliers are also common in bodybuilding gyms, where the mentors and co-trainers of newer bodybuilders share or facilitate the purchase of image and performance enhancing drugs (IPEDs), such as steroids – again for little or no profit.
Many social suppliers are simply ordinary young people, whose supply does not go much further than their own personal use, and the social relations they already have. Jurisdictions around the world are increasingly recognising that social suppliers are not “drug dealers proper”; that preventing minor offences should not be a top priority for resource-strapped enforcement operations; and that social suppliers should not be subjected to the same sentencing as those whose involvement in drug trafficking and distribution is of a more serious nature.
Across county lines
Some of the UK’s own difficulties could be partly alleviated by applying this knowledge. The UK parliament has already heard concerns over the new “county lines” model of drug supply, which is spreading across the country. This involves gang-controlled dealers travelling from major cities to satellite towns to take over the local heroin and crack trade, bringing new levels of violence and exploitation with them.
In the past, the heroin and crack in many regional towns were supplied by local user-dealers, who sold to other, already dependent users. These dealers made little profit, but rather sold primarily to secure their own supply. Research has shown that, compared with large city drug markets, the level of violence and intimidation in regional towns and rural areas serviced by local user-dealers tends to be low and infrequent.
But “out-of-town” dealers from large city hubs take a different, more commercial approach. These people commonly employ a technique known as “cuckooing”, whereby vulnerable residents – sometimes, but not always, drug users – either submit to the invaders or are forced out of their homes. The residence is then used as a base. These out-of-town dealers often also displace the less violent, local user-dealers with their own runners, who are commonly in some form of debt bondage or exploitative relationship themselves.
Out-of-town dealers may also integrate local user-dealers through intimidation or exploitation, and exert control over them using more violent means. Research shows that many user-dealers – who are typically users first and suppliers second – actually seek to avoid conflict, and often feel that violently escalating an issue is simply “not worth it”. By contrast, out-of-town dealers are more likely to engage in “turf wars”, create a dealing milieu that is more competitive, and elevate local levels of violence and intimidation.
Cynical, commercially-orientated dealers using this approach aim to groom, or simply impose, damaging exploitative relationships and create an environment of fear and violence wherever their tentacles spread. Clearly, they deserve a strong response from the criminal justice system.
To deliver this, cash-strapped police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service should not resort to the old method of sweeping up the “low hanging fruit” of visible, vulnerable user-dealers, exploited sex workers and involved vulnerable children – just to seem to be doing something. Rather, policing efforts need to be focused on those doing the exploiting. It’s also vital that police are able to deal with the exploited and vulnerable people involved in crimes more effectively and sensitively.
Likewise, now that recreational drug use is relatively normalised, and supply within and between users for little or no gain is not uncommon, the benefits of treating those people as drug “dealers proper” is questionable. Simply put, they are not the same thing. Governments must be able to respond to this complexity, and protect those who they might otherwise punish.