Middle market drug distribution
Geoffrey Pearson and Dick Hobbs
with the assistance of Steve Jones, John Tierney and Jennifer Ward
London: Home Office, 2001
81 p.
(Also available online as a PDF-document)

Subject, Methods, Database:
A study of the 'middle market' drug distribution system in the UK, based on interviews with offenders, law enforcement officers, and barristers with experience of drug trials. Overall, some 70 case studies of drug distribution networks operating in the spheres between bulk importation and retail selling were generated, 15 of which are described in some detail in the appendix.

The market pyramid in the drug trade is best understood to be flat or shallow in that the chain between importation and retail level distribution is sometimes surprisingly short. At the wholesale and middle market levels, the roles of supplier and buyer can be interchangeable. Market participants typically operate in small sub-networks with a few core members and possibly a wider fringe of bit-part players and wage laborers, or in partnerships of independent traders or brokers. A crucial position is occupied by middle market multi-commodity drug brokers who link the upper and lower levels of the market. Some brokers deal in all the main illicit substances - heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy and cannabis. -; others only in party drugs. Nevertheless, they link what are essentially mono-commodity supply chains to retailers who are also equally likely to deal in a more limited range of substances.
In the UK there is not so much a national drugs market than a series of loosely interlinked local and regional supply networks.
Kinship and ethnicity remain important factors for group cohesion and the linkage to source countries, for example Pakistan, and traditional smuggling routes, for example through Turkey. But numerous cross-ethnic network linkages are evident. Imprisonment is a key generator of contacts. The clubbing scene also serves "as a modern system of fraternity that can facilitate drug networks" (p. 31).
The significance of violence in the drug trade is often misunderstood and overstated. While middle market participants often come with a previously established reputation for violent conduct earned as bouncers, robbers or football hooligans, and the potential for violence is always an implied threat, business principles are predominant. This means that 'violence-avoidance' is the more general rule. Overt violence is most usefully understood as a consequence of market dysfunction and disorganization. Where it occurs in the drug trade, violence is essentially instrumental to secure contract compliance or to enforce debt collection, and sometimes takes the form of kidnap and torture that often goes unreported.

"Middle market drug distribution" is a short, concise analysis which uses a clear terminology and keeps close to the raw data, thereby avoiding to cling to cherished preconceptions.
Particularly noteworthy is the combination of various data sources. The project would have deserved a longer time frame, more than the some six months of field study, and a larger staff of researchers, which would have permitted to conduct a greater number of interviews with offenders in the field. It is perhaps one of the few reservations that have to be made with regard to the validity of the study that most offenders where interviewed while incarcerated.

Overall Evaluation:
An exemplary study which provides valuable insights into the structure and functioning of the drug trade.

Further Reading:
Gruppo Abele, Synthetic Drugs Trafficking in Three European Cities: Major Trends on the Involvement of Organized Crime, Turin, Italy: Gruppo Abele, 2003. (read review)
Marks, Howard, Mr. Nice, London: Vintage, 1998. (read review)
Paoli, Letizia, The 'invisible hand of the market': the illegal drugs trade in Germany, Italy, and Russia, in: P. C. van Duyne et al. (eds.), Criminal Finances and Organising Crime in Europe, Nijmegen, Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2003, 19-40.
Reuter, Peter, and Peter Haaga, The Organization of High-Level Drug Markets: An Exploratory Study, Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1989.
Ruggiero, Vincenzo, and Nigel South, Eurodrugs: drug use, markets and trafficking in Europe, London: UCL Press, 1995.
Zaitch, Damian, Trafficking Cocaine: Colombian Drug Entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2002. (read review)

© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.