The Need for Greater Understanding of the User-Dealer Dynamic in Drug Policy

A recent study investigating the user-dealer dynamic -- broadly speaking, people who engage in both the use and selling of illicit drugs -- draws attention to a phenomenon that is in need of greater attention when analyzing the complexities of drug markets.

The paper -- "Earning A Score: An Exploration of the Nature and Roles of Heroin and Crack Cocaine ‘User-Dealers'" -- is authored by Leah Moyle and Ross Coomber and was published online by the British Journal of Criminology earlier this year. 

To date, countless studies have been conducted on the multifaceted global drug market and its supply chains, though very few have taken into consideration the role of user-dealers. Moyle and Coomber's study is extremely important for understanding how a deeper analysis of street-level dynamics would improve both drug policies and harm reduction measures.

The authors identify three types of user-dealer:

  1. The Dealer’s Apprentice - “a drug user whose journey into supply is a result of a close-working relationship with a commercially motivated ‘dealer’”;
  2. The Opportunist - “similar to the ‘dealer’s apprentice’, in the sense that they may also acquire a substantial quantity of heroin or crack cocaine for distribution. However, ... [it] differs in the sense that there is not a sustained relationship between the ‘opportunist’ and the supplier of the substance … The ‘opportunist’ ... [takes] this opportunity as an alternative to other illegitimate ways of funding their habit”;
  3. The Nominated Buyer - “earns his/her drugs through purchasing substances on behalf of their social group, or at street level, using their contacts to access drugs for other known heroin or crack cocaine users”.

Thirty heroin and crack cocaine user-dealers (men and women between the age of 19 and 52) were interviewed in a city in South West England. One of the key findings was that respondents more or less unanimously preferred to engage in user-dealing than other forms of crime -- for example, acquisitive crime such as robbery, or sex work -- as they didn't want to hurt others and wanted to avoid exposing themselves to potential violence and abuse. Some also had a moral objection to carrying out crimes like theft and robbery. 

As the study notes:

"While not condoning their activities, user-dealers highlighted how addiction, the lack of legitimate options available to them and the non-predatory nature of their distribution, provided some form of mitigation for their actions."

Unlike major drug suppliers, the study found that the user-dealers interviewed always sold narcotics in order to fund their own dependency. This meant that their living standards rarely saw any discernable improvement. As one amphetamine user told Moyle and Coomber, "I'd say I broke even really ... as soon as it comes in one hand, it's gone out again."

Of the study sample, none had ever tried to sell drugs to strangers, preferring dealing with acquaintances/known users (64 percent) or friends (36 percent), a strategy considered less risky.

Though the study is small-scale its findings have broad implications for how we understand street dealing, and more importantly public policy and harm reduction services. On the latter point, thanks to the strict criminalization of drug dealing, user-dealers face many obstacles to accessing harm reduction and treatment services due to the fear of arrest and imprisonment. Vincent Benso's study of Parisian cocaine dealers provides a case study on this issue.

With regards to public policy, the paper concludes that "user-dealers require a more proportionate and tailored sentencing approach, that appropriately acknowledges their distinct social context and their motivations for choosing supply over other acquisitive crimes." 

The Sentencing Council for England and Wales has to date only included addiction as a "mitigating factor" in sentencing guidelines rather than incorporating a specific user-dealer role. Thus, this group is still exposed to receiving heavy sentences despite their intent and motivation being very different from the stereotypical commercial drug dealer who engages in the practice for profit.

It is crucial that research into the user-dealer dynamic be expanded upon so that this marginalized group has access to the services they may require and doesn't face the threat of disproportionate action within the criminal justice system. As the study concludes: "user-dealing may represent for addicted drug users a practice that is perceived [as] the best choice in a very limited range of options."