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A Sociological Theory of Drug Sales, Gifts, and Frauds

The transfer of drugs from one person to another does not always involve a fair sale. Gifts and frauds are also common. Although the rationality perspective has dominated and made important contributions to the study of drug transfer, this article proposes a new theory of ...

Published onNov 04, 2010
A Sociological Theory of Drug Sales, Gifts, and Frauds


The transfer of drugs from one person to another does not always involve a fair sale. Gifts and frauds are also common. Although the rationality perspective has dominated and made important contributions to the study of drug transfer, this article proposes a new theory of drug sales, gifts, and frauds. The theoretical lens of pure sociology is used to find social structural patterns in qualitative data obtained from a study of middle- and lower class drug dealers. Based on that data, the authors suggest that the social status of drug procurers and their social distance from drug dealers affect (a) whether the transfer is a gift, sale, or fraud and (b) the size of the gift, the price of the sale, and the seriousness of the fraud. Implications for future research are discussed.


The aim of this paper is to propose a social structural theory of drug sales, gifts, and frauds grounded in findings from a qualitative study of 50 drug dealers. The paper first defines the various forms of drug transfer, briefly discussing rational choice explanations of them. Then, the theoretical perspective employed in this paper – pure sociology – is described. After reviewing the method and data, qualitative descriptions of actual drug transfers are presented and examined. Those in turn are used to propose a social structural theory of drug form and cost. The paper concludes by suggesting future lines of research.

Drug Transfer

The mutual exchange of resources is the raison d’être for all markets. A drug sale, or drug deal, is defined as a non-fraudulent exchange of a drug for another resource; this is reciprocity (Jacques and Wright, 2008a, p. 233; e.g., Mohamed and Fritsvold, 2008; Levitt and Venkatesh, 2001; Sifaneck et al., 2007). The price of a sale is a quantitative variable measurable by the rate of exchange between a drug buyer and seller. For any given case, transferring more resources for a drug is equivalent to paying a higher price for it.

Drugs are not always purchased. A gift is defined as the provision of a drug without the requirement to reciprocate; this is altruism (Jacques and Wright, 2008a, p. 232; e.g., Caulkins and Pacula, 2006; Coomber, 2003). A gift is a quantitative variable measurable by the amount of drugs given without any obligation to compensate the giver with objects or services. Whereas drug sales involve a fair give-and-take, gifts involve only giving, no taking. For any given case, transferring more drugs for free is equivalent to a greater gift.

Drugs also are obtained through fraud, defined as a transfer based on false premises (see, e.g., Dickson-Gomez et al., 2004; Furst et al., 2004; Jacobs, 1999). Fraud is a quantitative variable measurable by the difference between what should be and what actually is provided by a seller or customer; this is predation.[1] Whereas drug sales involve a fair give-and-take, frauds involve deception. For any given case, transferring more resources through deceit is equivalent to a more serious fraud.[2]

Sales, gifts, and frauds are conceptually distinguishable according to whether they involve reciprocity, altruism, or predation. However, these behaviors are abstractly connected because each is a form of resource transfer. Therefore, it is possible to conceptualize them as points on a continuum of transfer rates. Gifts and frauds may be thought of as diametrically opposed: a gift involves receiving something for nothing; a fraud, in the extreme case, involves giving something and receiving nothing, despite being promised otherwise. Sales reside between the two extremes of resource transfer: they involve receiving something for something. Thus, the cost of drugs cannot simply be measured by determining their price. Rather, the cost of drugs is the outcome not only of sales but also the amount of gifts and the seriousness of frauds. This raises the question: What determines the form and cost of drug transfer?

The Rationality of Drug Transfer

The rationality perspective dominates investigations of illicit drug transfer and has yielded important insights into the activity (Caulkins, 2007; MacCoun and Reuter, 2001). Indeed, this paradigm provides the basis for government efforts to reduce drug transfer and consumption (Zimring and Hawkins, 1992). Generally speaking, rational choice theories suggest that variation in the form and cost of drug transfer is explained by the cost-benefit calculus engaged in by drug dealers and procurers (see, e.g., Jacobs, 1999).[3] For any given drug transfer, the form it takes is the one most beneficial or least costly for the seller or procurer. In other words, the rationality of persons involved in a transfer determines whether it is a sale, gift, or fraud. Of course, sales are rational by allowing sellers to make money and customers to obtain a desired service or product – such as drugs. In some cases, however, a gift or fraud may be more rational than a fair trade.

Gifts provided to procurers by drug dealers are rational to the degree that they yield more money or fewer costs in the long run (Coomber, 2003; Denton, 2001). In London, England, for example, Pearson (2001) describes a cannabis dealer who provided potential customers with a free “puff”, which cost him about £0.50. This was a rational choice for the dealer not only because he might entice the person to make a purchase, but also because procurers might in turn offer him a pint of beer, which cost £1.60. In this way, the dealer profited £1.10 for every gift he provided regardless of whether he made a sale. Yet giving free drugs may also come with costs to dealers. A study in Sydney, Australia, found that “[n]one of the [street] dealers…reported enticing new customers with free drugs” (Coomber and Maher, 2006, p. 740). The authors suggest this is because of “the inherent danger and foolhardiness involved in such an approach. Open drug markets and street sellers do not just sell to anyone” (p. 740).

One reason drug dealers and customers do not do business with everyone is that doing so opens the door to predators, including defrauders (Jacobs, 1999, 2000; Jacobs et al., 2000; Topalli et al., 2002). Fraud is a rational choice because it allows predators to obtain the resources of the transfer partner for less than that should be given in return. In the drug world, fraud often involves fake drugs or fake money (Denton, 2001). Sometimes drugs and money are provided – just not all that was promised (Dickson-Gomez et al., 2004, p. 918). The benefits of fraud, however, may come with costs in the form of retaliation (Jacobs and Wright, 2006). For instance, after receiving counterfeit bills an Australian dealer described the fate of the victimizer: “I’ll fix him up when I see him. There’s plenty of ways to skin a rabbit” (Denton, 2001, p. 109). 

As seen above, sales, gifts, and frauds all have their own benefits and costs. The form of drug transfer that occurs should be the one with the greatest profit and fewest punishments. As well, the cost of drug transfers – whether the price of a sale, the size of a gift, or the seriousness of a fraud – should be explained by their benefits and costs relative to other exchange rates. For example, when the price of drugs is extraordinarily high then fewer sales will be made and less profit earned. Or when a fraud involves no drugs rather than fake drugs, the chance of detection and retaliation are greater. And gifts that are too big or too frequent may create problems whereby customers “get to expect it” (Coomber and Maher, 2006, p. 949).

Pure Sociology & Social Structure

Despite the substantial merits of the rationality paradigm and its contributions to the study of drug transfer, it is plausible that factors beyond costs and benefits affect drug sales, gifts, and frauds. To add to the sum of criminological knowledge of drug transfer, this paper examines how that activity is affected by social influences (see Black, 1976, 1995, 1998; Cooney, 2006).

As conceptualized in the paradigm of pure sociology, the social structure of a situation is a combination of persons’ social status and social distance (Black, 1976, 1998). Social status involves five different hierarchies. People gain status as they increase or others decrease in wealth, integration, organization, knowledge, or freedom from social control. Social distance, on the other hand, refers to two or more persons shared qualities. People become closer in social distance as they interact more often, cooperate together, or express themselves in similar ways. Pure sociology’s strength is that it considers this array of sociological influences and provides a succinct way to examine all of them (Black, 1995; Cooney, 2006).

The task for pure sociologists is to determine how the social status of and social distance between people involved in situations affects the form and quantity of social behavior (Cooney, 1998). As relates to crime and delinquency, past efforts nested in this perspective have examined predation (Cooney, 2006; Cooney and Phillips, 2002), vigilantism (Black, 1983; Cooney, 1998, 2009), terrorism (Black, 2004), lynching, rioting (Senechal de la Roche, 1996), genocide (Campbell, 2009), and law, (Black, 1976, 1998), such as the death penalty (Phillips, 2009).[4]

This paper addresses the following two questions: Does the social status of a person procuring drugs and that person’s social distance from the dealer affect the form of drug transfer? And, do social status and social distance affect the price of drugs, the size of gifts, or the seriousness of frauds? We attempt to answer those questions by drawing on qualitative descriptions of drug transfer obtained through interviews with drug dealers. The goal is to find patterns in the qualitative data and to state them as falsifiable propositions that may be tested in future research with quantitative data and statistical analyses (see Cooney, 1998, p. 9).

Method & Data

Although qualitative studies based on non-random sampling and a small number of participants (as compared to many quantitative studies) naturally raise questions about the validity and generalizability of findings, this form of research has its own important merits. Above all – and as recognized by respected quantitative researchers such as Laub and Sampson (2003, p. 251-2), Shadish, Cook, & Campbell (2002, p. 478), and King, Keohane, and Verba (1994, p. 46) – the purpose of qualitative data is theory development rather than theory testing. In other words, qualitative data are useful for exploring unexplored paths. Findings from such studies provide theories that quantitative research may subsequently test to determine their validity and generalizability for different populations.

The data on which this paper is based come from in-depth, open-ended but theoretically oriented interviews with unincarcerated individuals actively or recently involved in illicit drug selling. Half of the participants sold drugs in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia; the other participants operated in lower-class neighborhoods in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of the interview, all interviewees were currently selling drugs or had done so within the past two years. The sample mostly consists of retail dealers (e.g., persons selling a few grams at a time), with some low-level suppliers also being interviewed (e.g., persons selling a few ounces or pounds at a time).[5] Some of the dealers sold for only 1 month, whereas others had been selling for many years. All names are pseudonyms; street names are used to refer to the lower-class dealers (e.g., K-Loc) and given names are used to refer to the middle-class dealers (e.g., Christian).

Dealers in the suburban Atlanta sample were recruited by the lead author in 2004 and 2005. This was accomplished through a mixture of purposive and snowball sampling (see Jacques and Wright, 2008b). These dealers were known to him through social networks related to school, sport, and general socializing. As it is difficult to find active drug dealers and convince them to cooperate in research, the participation criteria were kept to a minimum; namely, participants had to be between 18 and 23 years of age and from a middle-class, suburban community (as defined/perceived by the participants themselves). The first 18 participants were not compensated, but the last 7 respondents were paid $20 per interview. Participants who engaged in snowball sampling were paid $20 for each successful referral.

All of the middle-class participants are white; we simply could not locate any non-white drug sellers. Two of the sellers were female. All of the sellers in this population had graduated from high school, a substantial majority of them were in university at the time of the interview, and many have since earned degrees. Criminal arrests were a rare occurrence among them, with criminal convictions being even rarer. There was only one reported case of a participant’s drug selling being detected and punished with law. Most of the sellers were in the marijuana business, but a substantial number also had sold, at one time or another, ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and other substances; none sold crack cocaine or heroin.

 In 2006, the other sample of participants was recruited and interviewed. These persons lived and sold drugs in low-income neighborhoods in St. Louis, Missouri. Sellers in St. Louis were recruited through the efforts of a specially trained project fieldworker, who has cooperated with us in prior studies of active offenders. Trading on his trust, the fieldworker worked through chains of street referrals to gain introductions to drug dealers, and then built on these initial introductions by obtaining further referrals from the dealers themselves. As recruitment is the most challenging aspect of active offender research, the fieldworker was paid $75 per successful recruit. To enhance cooperation, street-sellers were paid $50 for an interview.

All of the lower class participants are black, and six of the twenty-five are female. The social status of these street-sellers is much different from that of the Georgia sample. None of the St. Louis participants had graduated from college; thirteen of them graduated from high school and another three received their General Educational Development (GED) degree. The age of the population clustered mostly around thirty years, with a few participants being younger. Involvement with police and government prosecutors is the norm for this group, with practically all of them having been arrested in the past. Many of these participants sold crack cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, while some sold more than one type of drug.

For both samples, the interviews lasted between 30 minutes and 2 hours, were semi-structured, and conducted in an informal manner. The contours of individual interviews varied, though each ultimately addressed the pre-identified focal topics of the project. Interviews centered on stories and narratives, as compared to general descriptions. As relates to the present study, we asked participants questions about how various aspects of social status and social distance affected the form and cost of drug transfer. Moreover, we asked for specific examples and details of the cases, such as: “What happened in the last deal you did? How do you know that person? How much did you give them? Was that fair? Why did you do this?”

As with any study based on interviews, ours too raises concerns about internal validity, such as the possibility that some participants may have resorted to lying or distortion, or lack sufficient memory of the situations asked about during interviews. In order to minimize participants’ concerns, they were promised confidentially, with only the lead author knowing their true identities. Interviewees were given an informed consent form to read before the interview began, which made them aware of their rights as research participants. Comments initially deemed unusual or unfounded were probed to reveal and, if possible, resolve inconsistencies. As some interviewees may be unwilling to talk truthfully about anything that would portray them in a negative light, we took two steps at the beginning and throughout each interview to safeguard against this possibility: we asked participants to say that they did not want to talk about something, rather than lie about it; and, we reaffirmed our promise of confidentiality. Despite all the steps taken to maintain internal validity, it is possible that some of the participants lied or embellished their accounts.

Data were analyzed manually. Transcripts were read and hand-coded, using the concepts of pure sociology to guide the organizational framework. Put succinctly, we read through each interview transcription individually, searching for events and descriptions that shed light on the research questions at hand: Do social status and social distance affect drug transfer and, if so, in what way? Please note that although the use of quotes must be limited for brevity’s sake, we believe them to be representative.[6]

Social Structural Patterns in Drug Sales, Gifts, & Frauds

In what follows, we use the theoretical lens of pure sociology to examine qualitative data obtained in interviews with 25 suburban, middle-class dealers and 25 urban, lower-class sellers. We attempt to discern a general, simple, testable, and valid theory of how social structure – meaning social status and social distance – is patterned with drug transfer – including the likelihood and price of sales, the size of gifts, and the seriousness of frauds. After examining the data, we propose a unified, albeit preliminary, theory of drug sales, gifts, and frauds.

Social Status & Drug Transfer

Social status is a person’s position in a social hierarchy (Black, 1976, 1998). There are five kinds of social status: vertical; radial; corporate; symbolic; and, normative. As a person gains greater wealth, community involvement, organization, knowledge, and freedom, then that person is said to have higher social status. Does social status have any discernable patterning with the various forms of drug transfer? More specifically, does the social status of a customer affect the cost of drugs for that person?

Symbolic status is defined by one’s knowledge,[7] in general or relative to a specific sort of interaction. The higher one’s knowledge, the greater the actor’s status. In any given drug trade, the seller, in practically all cases, has more knowledge than the customer. “The seller knows his product and sells it all day; he thus has the status advantage of both expertise and experience [i.e., knowledge] over the customer who…shop[s] for that product” (Blumberg, 1989, p. 188-9).

While almost all dealers know more about drugs than customers, inevitably some customers have more knowledge than others. For example, some customers know how much an eighth of an ounce equals in grams or what it “should” cost, while others are ignorant of such details. [8] Although prices often are fairly consistent across sales, there is variability to a degree. Prior studies note that such differences may result from the knowledge held by dealers and customers. As noted by Jacobs (1999), “sellers who are able keep abreast of prices, quantities, and locations of suppliers stood to make the best deals. Social organization is about information—about who knows what and how to use that knowledge to advantage” (p. 44; also see p. 69-73).

According to the sellers who participated in our study, customers with relatively little market knowledge receive relatively unfavorable bargains. After all, knowledge is imperative in detecting unwanted situations. Those who do not have sufficient cultural knowledge to realize they have been wronged are exploited more often than others. Consider two examples:

Robert: I fucked people too. I sold a kid a bag of oregano that one time.

Interviewer: Tell me this story?

Robert: He called me up, and he was kind of a douche, and he was wanting pot. So we put like half a joint [in the sack] – it was a roach from one of our joints – and there was real marijuana in that, but the rest of it was just oregano, and he was a fucking idiot anyway so I sold it to him for $25.

Interviewer: Did you ever slack anyone else?

Robert: Not really, I’d usually try to be on the up and up, but that kid was a fucking idiot so whatever, we thought it was funny.

Interviewer: What do you mean he was a fucking idiot?

Robert: He just didn’t know anything about that line. He didn’t know anything about drugs at all. He didn’t know what marijuana looked like or anything. I don’t even know why he wanted to buy it. He probably was doing it just to be cool.


Interviewer: All right, you were talking about people being stupid. Do you have any customers that you just know that they don’t know what’s going on in terms of the weights and the prices? You know that they don’t know what they actually deserve?

$50-Holler: Yeah. People like that I short them all the time but they don’t know the weight. They don’t know what they’re supposed to be getting […] They just give you money and you give them the product. I short people like that all the time. If you don’t know the weight, I ain’t gonna tell you the weight.

Interviewer: Is there like one person you have in mind that you do that to all the time, but they always come back?

$50-Holler: This stupid dude. He so stupid he don’t know the weight or the value of what he gets… I do that to him all the time. He comes with a fat bag of money. You get to add 3 or 4 stones to that bag but he’s stupid. He don’t know so I ain’t gonna tell him. I’m gonna keep using his dumb ass like that until he finally runs out of the fucking door.

Even when a customer does know the going price for a drug, if the weight cannot be determined there is less knowledge, resulting in worse treatment. Dealers, for the most part, have access to scales that allow them to precisely weigh out their sales. Customers seldom have scales, and thus no way of confirming whether or not any given transaction is fair. Tom, for instance, said that he would slack those who “didn’t have scales to actually weigh it out themselves.” Dave echoed these sentiments, saying, “You can just rip somebody off because you know they’re not going to weigh it out because you know they don’t have any scales.” And Christian explained the process of slacking certain customers in more detail:

Christian: I never slacked anybody big, the people I’d slack were basically just the people who I knew I could get away with it.

Interviewer: And why would you get away with it?

Christian: Just because they wouldn’t have a scale, it’s a rare thing to have a scale.

Interviewer: And you wouldn’t show them the weight on your scale?

Christian: That’s part of deceiving them into not knowing what’s going on. Obviously if you’re giving somebody a slack bag you never show them a scale, but if you’re giving somebody a fat sack you’re going to show them the scale every time cause if you’re hooking somebody up then you want them to know.

Vertical status is defined by the distribution of resources and rank in a hierarchy, with more wealth or higher rank equating to higher status. Obviously, drug markets by their very nature require customers who have an object or service to trade. The more objects – such as money – or services owned by a customer, the higher that individual’s status. Although one might reasonably suspect that persons with more money may be asked to pay more for what they want, the experiences described by sellers in our study suggest the typical pattern is for wealthier customers to receive more favorable treatment[9]:

Interviewer: Do you have any customers that you know have more money than others?

K Loc: Yeah.

Interviewer: Do you treat them the same? Do you overcharge them because they have more money?

K Loc: No, I might try to treat them a little better… I might give them a little bit more than their money’s worth.

Radial status is defined by one’s involvement in social institutions, such as family, work, politics, and so on. More involvement in any communal activity results in higher status. Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of radial status in economic exchange is whether or not the customer has employment. This is understandable not only because employment indicates income, but also because persons prefer to do business with individuals tied into and contributing to the community. When customers have a job, sellers report that these individuals get a better bargain:

Interviewer: Would you say some of your customers have jobs and some don’t?

Hustler: Yeah most of them got jobs.

Interviewer: Do you treat the ones with jobs any differently from the ones that don’t have jobs?

Hustler: Yeah I certainly do…

Interviewer: So how do you treat those customers differently?

Hustler: I make sure that I hook [the persons with jobs] up every time…

Interviewer: You said you hook up the guys with jobs, like what do you mean “hook them up”?

Hustler: I give them a nice amount.

Interviewer: Like more than they deserve?

Hustler: More than what they deserve.

As mentioned above, the nature of wealth and work is such that the latter often increases the former. In other words, whether a person has employment (radial status) affects their wealth (vertical status). Recognizing this, some drug dealers give differential treatment to customers based on whether they have a job and, presumably, income – that may be spent on drugs:

Ridin’ Dirty: I ripped a lot of…people.

Interviewer: What was it about the…people that made you think you could rip them off, or that made you rip them off?

Ridin’ Dirty: ’Cause most of them didn’t have jobs.  I mean why would I rip a person off that’s got a job and who’s gonna keep bringing money?

Interviewer: So you wouldn’t rip people off with the jobs but you’d rip the people off without the jobs?

Ridin’ Dirty: Yeah.

Although work is an indicator of radial status, it may also be considered an indicator of corporate status to the degree it involves cooperation. Corporate status increases as does the amount of collective action performed by an actor. “[A]ny group is, by definition, more organized than an individual on his own” (Black 1976, p. 86). Cooperation appears to provide drug procurers with more favorable bargains. A lower-class seller used her “auntie” to facilitate business:

Baby Girl: I would kind of like get my auntie an upgrade for her bringing my clientele to me.

Interviewer: What do you mean upgrade?

Baby Girl: I kind of like gave her more than what I usually would give and more than somebody else would give her.

Interviewer: Like what are we talking about?

Baby Girl: Like crack, I would give her like 50 [dollars worth] more of what anyone else would give her ’cause she bringing her clients over to me.

In the example described above, what occurs is that the dealer’s aunt works with “her clients”. The clients benefit by gaining access to a drug seller, namely Baby Girl. The aunt benefits by gaining a better price. If the clients or aunt were not working together, we suspect that the clients would have less access to drugs and the aunt would have a less favorable bargain.

Normative status is defined in part by the amount of social control applied to an actor’s behavior, with status decreasing as the amount of social control applied to one’s behavior increases. No matter what behavior is defined as deviant, a customer’s involvement in that behavior diminishes the favorability of bargains. Past studies have uncovered incidents whereby the deviance of customers leads to higher costs (Jacobs, 1999; Jacques, 2010). A study of cocaine sellers in New York City, for example, discusses the case of one supplier raising the price because the customer insulted his girlfriend: “Once [the girlfriend] overheard [the buyer] criticizing her housekeeping to [the supplier] and suggesting that she was lazy; angered, she complained to [her boyfriend-supplier] and he was honor-bound to show his displeasure, so he…raised the price” (Williams, 1989, p. 34).

One form of deviance in drug markets is excessive haggling by customers. As sellers often set their own price (or at least have the self-designated authority to negotiate), bargaining plays an important role in drug markets. Sometimes a customer’s haggling pays off; other times it does not. However, when one has bargained his or her way to a better deal, continuing to seek an even better price ironically may lead to a worse one:

Interviewer: Did any of your customers ever piss you off like complaining about prices or saying it didn’t weigh right or anything? [...]

East-Side Pimp: Oh when you give them a better price […] and [then] they complain about the price, what you do is go to the “heavy bag” thing, where they thinking you giving them 14 grams [half an ounce] whereas you’re giving them more like 10 grams [which is 4 grams short of a half ounce]. This deceives the customer ’cause the bag will weigh a few grams by itself.


Interviewer: Can you think of any times you ever slacked [i.e., under-weighed] someone on purpose?

Mark: Not ever when I was dealing, unless they pissed me off. I mean I can remember this one guy that called me up and I knew his bag was straight [i.e., fair] and he called me up saying it wasn’t and then he forgot about it or whatever, and then the next time I hooked him up again and I had just weighed it out, I knew it was straight and he called me up complaining about it being slack again, tried to [get me to] give him more or whatever. So the next bag he came and got, I ripped him off hardcore.

Social Distance & Drug Transfer

Social distance is the amount of relational, organizational, and cultural commonalities in persons’ lives (see Black, 1976, 1998). There are three kinds of social distance: relational distance; organizational distance; and cultural distance. Does social distance have any discernable patterning with the various forms of drug transfer? Does closer social distance between drug dealers and procurers affect drug cost, including the price, size of gifts, and seriousness of frauds?

Relational distance is defined by “the degree to which [two actors] participate in each other’s lives, including the scope of their interaction, its frequency, duration, and their linkages in a wider network” (Black, 1998, p. 160). Two people, for example, who never interact have more relational distance than, say, a seller and buyer who trade drugs and money once a week, and they have further relational distance than a seller and buyer who do business every day, who have greater relational distance than persons who trade drugs every day and also play sports and attend school together.

Prior research has been highly cognizant of the way in which the relationship between a dealer and customer affects the form and cost of drug transfer (Coomber, 2003; Grapendaal et al., 1995, p. 105; Jacobs, 1999, p. 59-61; Murphy et al., 2005, p. 38; Weisheit, 1991, p. 513; Williams, 1989, p. 35). In London, for example, Pearson (2001) notes that retail prices for cocaine “varied considerably from £50 – 70 per gram, depending on purity and how well-connected someone might be to the source of supply; indeed some claimed to be able to buy cocaine for as little as £30 – 40 per gram” (p. 167). And in Australia, Denton (2001, p. 95) found that regular customers are ripped-off less often than less frequent customers.

The data from our study suggest that the cost of drugs diminishes as relational distance decreases between a seller and procurer. Related to this, closer intimacy leads to more gifts, better prices, and fewer frauds. The following quotes illustrate these patterns:

Trevor: [I]n general I’d say kids that are real close to me I would charge them not necessarily the price that I get it for – because they wouldn’t expect me to because it’s not like I just go out of my way to provide them a sack every time they need it – but, you know, it’s like I’ll make half the profit that I usually would, whatever that is…[But] like my roommate man, I basically give it to him at cost.


J-Money: I sell Ex pills at $10, so if you spend $100 you get 10 pills. But on the streets for real they sell Ex pills for $20-25, so I mean I’m giving them a nice deal.

Interviewer: Is there anyone that has like a special deal where they get like a cheaper price than everyone else?

J-Money: My homies, my partners, they get the deals like nobody else.

Interviewer: So what deal do they get and what deal does everybody else get?

J-Money: If they spend $100 with me then I [give] them like 3 extra pills, so they get 13 pills for $100.


Interviewer: Who are your customers?

Ron: Most of them are between the age range of 18 to 25, I’m 22, right around my age. They’re mostly just people that I already know that are family or friends.

Interviewer: Are there any outsiders that just know you as their drug dealer?

Ron: There’s only 1 or 2 people like that.

Interviewer: Why do you deal with them?

Ron: ’Cause some people you don’t know you can sell it to for more.

Interviewer: Do you give some customers better price than others?

Ron: Definitely…. If it’s somebody I don’t know it’s automatically a lot higher.


Dave: people I didn’t know, people who probably wouldn’t buy from me ever again, or just somebody that I don’t even know, like know me as a person [….] If I’m supposed to give them 3.5 [grams] I might give them 3.0 [or] 3.2.

Sometimes established customers serve as intermediaries between dealers and would-be customers with no relational ties to one another. When a dealer knows that the drugs being purchased are destined for a stranger – that is, when there is increased relational distance between seller and buyer – worse treatment is likely to be the outcome. Jared put it this way: “[I]f somebody tells you they’re getting it for a friend of theirs it’s a little easier to slack ’em a little bit because you don’t have to deal with [the customer] face-to-face.”

In addition to the concept of relational distance, there is also organizational distance, defined as the degree of collective action engaged in together by two actors (Phillips and Cooney, 2005). [10] Having more memberships in common is one indicator of closer organizational distance. The effect of such organization on drug costs also has been observed in other studies (Waldorf et al., 1991, p. 92). For example, a 1970s study of a “hippie commune” found that dealers who live within the community “are expected to provide…members of the ‘family’ with [free] drugs” (Moledoux, 1972, p. 116).

Organizational distance also appears to affect drug transfers completed by dealers in our sample. For instance, they often report giving relatively generous bargains to family members[11]:

Jeff: I would just give [my brother] weed because. I mean, it’s my little brother. I would just give him a nug [of marijuana] here and there for free.


Interviewer: Have you ever sold to your brothers and sisters?

O-G: Yeah.

Interviewer: Would you give them the same deals?

O-G: They can get it for free. They’re my blood. They can get the shit for free.

In addition to family, gangs are another form of social organization (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). Customers in the same gang reportedly get better bargains than do customers from different gangs. The same dealer quoted directly above explains how he also gives fellow gang members a better bargain:

O-G: Well, basically your associates and friends, they’re combined with all gangs and depending on what gang you favor then that’s who gets the hook up. I’ve got all types of associates and friends that are Blood and some are Crips and if my Blood homie calls up then he’s gonna get the hook up and then Crip dude calls […] he’s not gonna get the hook up [be]cause he’s Crip. That’s how it goes.

It is not uncommon for drug dealers to elicit the help of their friends to sell drugs (see Denton, 2001, p. 107-110; Dickson-Gomez et al., 2004, p. 917, 925; Hoffer 2006, p. 26-7). Examples of such collective action include attracting customers or hiding drugs. The benefit of such cooperative action is often free drugs or a better bargain. Consider Richard’s story:

Interviewer: Do you give anybody a better price?

Richard: One dude [….] He gets $5 taken off an eighth.

Interviewer: Why do you give that to him?

Richard: ’Cause he lives here, he lives in my house, like If I’m not here [and] somebody’s trying to come over [to buy something], he knows most of the people so he’ll do [the deal]. So I’ll just give him the [$5] discount, I always have.

Interviewer: Do you do anything else for him?

Richard: No, like that’s the agreement, if he sells a sack. Like, basically, if he’s there when I need him.

Pete, another dealer we interviewed, routinely kept his “weight” – or supply of drugs – at the house of one of his friend’s. He also relied on this friend to help him sell drugs while he was at work. As Pete explained:

Pete: I left all of my weed at his house all of the time [….] sometimes I’d be at work and if I was at work he would hold on to my weed for me and sell it while I was at work.

Interviewer: How did you compensate him?

Pete: If I got a half-pound I gave him 100 bucks, if I got a QP I’d give him 50, and he got to smoke as much as he wanted.

Another aspect of social distance is cultural distance, defined as the amount of similarity between actors in their ideas and modes of expression. The more similar the content of culture held by two or more persons, the closer they are in cultural distance. For example, two people who are from the same country and speak the same language are typically closer in cultural distance than are persons from far-apart countries who communicate entirely differently.

Prior research suggests that further cultural distance between seller and customer may lead to higher drug costs overall due to more frauds and less gifts (Bourgois, 1996; Padilla, 1992). One such case comes from Amsterdam, where a research project on heroin found that foreign customers are defrauded more and receive higher prices than natives (Grapendaal et al., 1995; also see Zaitch, 2002). From our own study, one middle-class dealer reported selling drugs to a foreign national and that transfer resulted in a relatively higher sale price for the culturally distant customer:

Mike: I remember this girl came in from Italy, and she was Italian, she was like 25, and her brother or something knew something about me, I don’t know [exactly how she knew me]. Anyways, she would call and be like “I’m in from Italy, I really need some weed.” I’d be like, “I don’t know you [chuckle], but, sure, you know, I got some weed, 110 a quarter, a 115 a quarter.” […] I gave her a worse price.

On the whole, however, data from our own study are not too clear regarding the impact of cultural distance on drug transfer. This is so for two reasons. First, the sample of middle-class dealers interviewed for our study did not, for the most part, provide drugs to anyone outside their own socio-cultural circle. In other words, they rarely – usually never – did business with any person who was not white, middle-class, and from or living in a suburban locale who largely shared their own ideas and modes of expression. In this respect, the amount of cultural distance between middle-class drug dealers and their customers is too small to determine how cultural distance affects drug sales, gifts, and frauds.

Unlike the middle-class dealers we interviewed, the lower-class dealers in our sample often provided drugs to persons who were different from them culturally. It was not unusual for them to do business with people who were of a different race/ethnicity, from a higher social class, living in suburban and rural areas. Although these demographic factors are certainly not direct indicators of culture or cultural distance, they do indicate that social differences, including cultural ones, were relatively great in the markets maintained by lower-class, urban dealers.

Despite the seeming cultural distance that frequently characterizes such markets, it is nevertheless difficult to ascertain its influence because – at least according to our participants – culture, as indicated by race/ethnicity, is highly correlated with a separate aspect of social structure, namely vertical status (i.e., wealth), which is discussed above.

When lower-class dealers in our study – all of whom were black – were asked whether they give “white people” a worse price their answer was overwhelmingly “no.” As explained by two dealers in the quotes below, differential bargains based on culture – at least as indicated by race – were almost entirely non-existent because their white customers typically had more money than their black ones:

Interviewer: Who’s getting better and who’s getting worse treatment [in terms of bargains]? Do you fuck over white people more than black people?

Baby Girl: No white people doesn’t want to bring the money. Them [black people are] the worse at bringing all the motherfucking money. Just the white motherfuckers [have money]…. Now you might get a black motherfucker who has the money, but it’s [usually a] white motherfucker.


Interviewer: Do you have white customers and black customers?

4-Life: Yeah.

Interviewer: Do you treat them all the same?  I mean do you ever fuck over a white guy just because he’s white?

4-Life: No I probably treat the white guys better than the black guys. Just because they have more money usually.

The words of Baby Girl and 4-Life demonstrate that various aspects of social structure – such as vertical status and cultural distance – may be correlated with each other and, therefore, determining the effect of each aspect of social structure on drug transfer is not always straightforward. Although the above quotes provide evidence that customers with more wealth (vertical status) pay less for drugs, it is unclear whether – holding constant wealth – cultural distance affects the cost of drug transfer.

A Theory of Drug Transfer: Sales, Gifts, & Frauds

As seen in prior research on drug transfer and as evidenced in the qualitative descriptions provided by the suburban, middle-class dealers and urban, lower-class dealers we interviewed, it is clear that drugs are transferred through fair sales but also via gifts and frauds. Moreover, the scale of gifts and frauds differs just as it does with the price of sales. The question posed at the beginning of this paper is whether these various forms of drug transfer can be explained by a sociological theory? When the data provided by drug dealers are examined through the theoretical lens of pure sociology, it appears that the form and cost of drug transfer is affected by social structure in a patterned manner. 

The Form of Drug Transfer

The form of drug transfer refers to whether it is a sale, gift, or fraud. The data outlined above suggest that the quality of drug transfer is affected by the procurer’s social status – meaning their relative rank in a social hierarchy based on wealth, production, organization, knowledge, or respectability. Patterns in the qualitative data suggest two hypotheses concerning the relationship between the form of drug transfer and procurers’ social status: As the social status of a drug procurer increases, the likelihood of a transfer being a gift rather than a sale or fraud increases. And: As the social status of a drug procurer increases, the likelihood of a transfer being a sale rather than a fraud increases. Stated differently, information provided by sellers leads to the hypotheses that drug transfers are more likely to be gifts than sales or sales than frauds as a procurer increases in wealth, community involvement, collective action, knowledge or respectability. Gifts are most likely when a procurer’s social status is maximal; frauds are most likely when a procurer’s status is minimal; sales should become more common as a procurer’s status becomes more average.

Another aspect of social structure is social distance. The social distance between a drug dealer and procurer is said to decrease as they spend more time together, have more common memberships, interact more often, think more alike, and express themselves in increasingly similar ways. The qualitative data examined above appear to have two patterns that may be stated as hypotheses: As the social distance between a drug procurer and drug dealer decreases, the likelihood of a transfer being a gift rather than a sale or fraud increases. And: As the social distance between a drug procurer and drug dealer decreases, the likelihood of a transfer being a sale rather than a fraud increases. In other words, the descriptions provided by dealers suggest that drug transfers are more likely to be gifts than sales or sales than frauds as a procurer and dealer interact more often, gain common memberships, or become more similar in ideas and modes of expression. Gifts are most likely when social distance is minimal; frauds are most likely when social distance is maximal; sales should become more common as a procurer’s distance from a seller becomes average.

The Cost of Drug Transfer

Each form of drug transfer may vary in its cost, or relative size. In principle, the price of drug sales may range from almost nothing (e.g., $1 for 1 gram of cannabis) to exorbitant (e.g., $80 for 1 gram of cannabis). Similarly, the size of a gift may vary from practically nothing (e.g., 1 “hit” of cannabis out of a pipe) to enormous amounts (e.g., 1 pound of cannabis to be used as one wishes). And the seriousness of a fraud may vary from practically nothing (e.g., 0.1 grams less of cannabis than “deserved”) to huge (e.g., 1 pound of cannabis paid for with counterfeit money). Lower drug cost is equivalent to reduced prices, bigger gifts, or less serious frauds.

The data outlined above suggest that the cost of drug transfer is affected by the procurer’s social status. The patterns in the data provide the basis for the following hypothesis: As the social status of a drug procurer increases, the cost of a drug transfer decreases. What this hypothesis predicts is that as a drug procurer has more wealth, community integration, organization, knowledge, and respectability, then the price of drug sales decreases, the size of gifts increases, and the seriousness of frauds decreases. In short, higher social status leads to lower drug costs.

The descriptions obtained from drug dealers also suggest that social distance between drug procurers and dealers affects drug costs. Patterns found within the data suggest the

following hypothesis: As the social distance between a drug procurer and a drug dealer decreases, the cost of a drug transfer decreases. Put differently, it appears that as a drug procurer and seller become closer in relational distance, organizational distance or cultural distance, the price of drug sales decreases, the size of gifts increases, and the seriousness of frauds decreases. In short, closer social distance leads to lower drug costs.

A Theory of Drug Transfer

Taken together, the hypotheses outlined above comprise a preliminary social structural theory of drug transfer. The theory is intended to explain not only the frequency of drug sales and their price, but also the frequency and size/seriousness of drug gifts and frauds. In short, the theory proposes that – all else equal – as (a) drug procurers’ gain social status or (b) become closer in social distance to a dealer, then (1) the frequency of gifts and sales should increase while frauds decrease, and also (2) the size of gifts should increase, the price of sales should decrease, and the seriousness of frauds should decrease.

Discussion & Conclusion

By its very nature, criminology is an interdisciplinary pursuit. It recognizes that crime may be explained through multiple theoretical orientations. Although the study of drug transfer has been dominated by and benefited from rational choice theory, the sum of knowledge is enhanced by viewing drug sales, gifts, and frauds through alternative theoretical lenses. With that in mind, this paper has proposed a social structural theory of drug market transfer. This theory was developed by examining how the experiences of drug dealers are patterned with their social distance from procurers and such persons’ social status.

Despite the differences between pure sociology and rationality theory, the two perspectives are compatible in many ways. Indeed, the differences between the two paradigms actually provide a synergistic opportunity to integrate ideas. Unlike Black (1995) and other pure sociologists (see, e.g., Cooney, 2006), we are not opposed to combining the power of pure sociology with other perspectives. For example, sellers in our study mention they are more likely to engage in fraud when they perceive low odds of detection by the customer due to that person’s inability to know that deception has occurred. In this way, then, the effect of low symbolic status (i.e., ignorance) on drug transfer (lower costs) is mediated by rationality (an assessment of likely costs and benefits). Thus, pure sociology may be useful for identifying sociological patterns, whereas rational choice theory may provide us with the reasons “why” they happen.

With that being said, it is also important to keep in mind that variables with causal influence over drug transfer may extend beyond social structure or rationality. They might also include, for instance, learning, culture, biology, environment, and other factors. It is possible that any or all of those theoretical influences determine variability in the frequency and price of sales, size of gifts, and seriousness of frauds. Theorists should explore these possibilities.

Theory development is important, but a theory capable of explaining only a couple of groups – such as the sample of drug dealers in this paper – is not very useful. After all, generality is a hallmark of good science (Kuhn, 1977; Popper, 2002). The nature of science is that a theory’s validity and generalizability is difficult or even impossible to know until tested with samples from multiple populations – such as those from different social classes, in different geographies, involved in different drugs, etcetera. Thus, no matter how well the theory explains the experiences of dealers in the present sample, its overall validity and generalizability will not be known until quantitative researchers test it and alternative explanations. Therefore we urge scientists simultaneously to collect data on each form of drug transfer and each explanatory variable identified by theorists. Only then will we have a firm grasp of why drug transfers vary in form and cost and, in turn, how to minimize the social harms that flow from these criminal behaviors.


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[1] The promise may be implicit or explicit.

[2] As measured as a whole or in relation to the total amount promised.

[3] A “procurer” is more than a drug buyer. It is defined as a person who obtains a drug through altruism (receiving a gift), reciprocity (trading in a sale), or predation (stealing the item through violence, fraud, or stealth).

[4] Black’s theory of law, for example, hypothesizes: “Downward law is greater than upward law” (1976, p. 21), predicting that a legal case involving a rich complainant and poor defendant will result in more judicial punishment than a case involving a poor complainant and a rich defendant. Another well known purely sociological theory is Black’s theory of self-help, which, in part, predicts that conflicts between friends involve less violent retaliation than conflicts between strangers (1998, p. 76-77); as a formal proposition: violent retaliation varies directly with relational distance between disputants (for a test, see Phillips, 2003).

[5] For information on the different levels of the drug dealing hierarchy, see Sevigny and Caulkins (2004).

[6] As the present paper is not entirely thorough in its examination of each form of social status and distance, future work may want to focus on one dimension of social space at a time to fully flush out the nuanced relationships and interactions that may exist.

[7] It is also defined by conventionality (see Black, 1976).

[8] This paper does not deal with the reasons behind drug prices averaging out at what they do. This, however, is a social behavior that, we believe, could be explained within the paradigm of pure sociology.

[9] Holding constant the amount of drugs transferred.

[10] The distinction between the radial and corporate dimension is in some cases unclear. The key difference is that the former dimension is concerned with all kinds of interaction, whereas the latter dimension focuses on cooperative interaction. For example (and all else equal), a self-employed person has the same radial status as an employee of a corporation, but the latter person has higher corporate status because they work with people rather than alone. As relates to relational versus organizational distance, consider this clarifying example: two people who play sports against each other (e.g., tennis) for 1 hour a week have the same relational distance as two people who spend 1 hour a week playing soccer together for the same team; yet compared to the former couple, the latter couple has closer organizational distance because they cooperate during their interaction.

[11] Family is a measure of organizational distance rather than relational distance because not all families or family members are equally intimate, but they are still family members by blood or law. Thus, families differ in their degree of relational distance, but they are nevertheless members of a common group.

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