An Exploration of how the Social Supply and User-Dealer Supply of Illicit Drugs Differs to Conventional Notions of Drug Dealing and Consideration of the Consequences of this for Sentencing Policy
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The concept of ‘social supply’ has emerged as a term used both in the UK, and internationally, to describe drug distribution that is non-commercially motivated and almost exclusively found between friends and acquaintances. Social suppliers have increasingly been presented as actors who are qualitatively different to drug dealers (proper), in relation to their motivation and their activity. As a result, they have increasingly become identified as a group who should be distinguished as such legally (Police Foundation, 2000; Release, 2009). While social supply behaviours can be identified in wider research literature relating to recreational drug use, there is a relative gap in regard to in-depth accounts of social supply activity, and in regard to a social supply definition. In a similar way, heroin and crack cocaine user-dealers - a group who are also perhaps not best understood as profit motivated suppliers - have received insufficient academic attention, with the majority of research references failing to go beyond typologies that recognise them simply as suppliers who also use. With research indicating that social supply permeates a meaningful section of adolescent and adult drug markets, along with evidence to suggest that drug supply embodies one of limited options for addicted drug users to fund their habit, this thesis explores how far we can understand these behaviours as drug dealing (proper). Using qualitative in-depth interviews and case studies, this interpretivist research design develops existing ideas, as well as highlighting emergent social supply and user-dealing themes. Findings from this research indicate that social supply behaviours are usefully understood through a theoretical application of ‘normalisation’ (Parker et al., 1998) and ‘drift’ (Matza, 1964) and are wider in scope than those currently recognised by the literature base. The research findings also indicate the importance of the notion of ‘economies of scale’ - an incentive for drug users to obtain a larger quantity of substance for a cheaper price. Notions of reciprocity also feature, with group obligation providing a rationale for involvement in social supply. The findings are also suggestive of the idea that user-dealing - understood through the theoretical gaze of Bourdieu’s ‘Theory of Practice’ (1990) - is characterised by limited distribution, minimal profit and explicated as a less harmful option than other crimes undertaken to fund drug dependence. This thesis concludes with the proposal that a conceptual shift towards ‘minimally commercial supply’ offers a more realistic and inclusive means of conceptualising both social supply and user-dealing activity. Possible ways forward therefore include the implementation of this term as a distinct offence that focuses on intent, thereby presenting a more proportionate approach than current policy responses for these groups allow.
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