Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Methamphetamine Users' Perceptions of Exchanging Drugs for Money: Does Trust Matter?

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Methamphetamine Users' Perceptions of Exchanging Drugs for Money: Does Trust Matter?

Article excerpt


Trust, between regular buyers and sellers, is thought to underpin retail-level illicit drug markets, discouraging sellers from taking advantage of buyers. Although dealers report rewarding regular, trusted customers with assured purity, less is known about their customers' experience of trust. Interviews with 101 methamphetamine users in New South Wales, Australia, confirm that users establish ongoing relationships with dealers. Irrespective of their level of methamphetamine use, some users trust their main dealer to supply a fair deal, whereas others expect to be taken advantage of. The study identified factors other than trust that might regulate dealer behavior. Methamphetamine use ebbs and flows. Users source drugs from multiple dealers, substitute other drugs for methamphetamine, and some buy a range of drugs from the one dealer. Our findings emphasize the complexity of factors that influence decisions about purchasing illicit drugs and point to a more holistic view of what regulates dealer behavior.


illicit drug markets, trust, risk


Interactions, or "concrete exchanges," in the retail-level marketplace for illicit drugs, between drug user and drug seller (Slater & Tonkiss, 2001, p. 13) are not well understood (Galenianos, Pacula, & Persico, 2009; Reuter, 2010). Participants in the marketplace are not legally protected from deceptive practices in exchanges of drugs for money. Because purchasers have no means of judging drug purity prior to (purchase and) use of that drug, the question of why dealers do not systematically take advantage of purchasers by supplying a drug that is substantially less pure than its price, or traded value would suggest, is salient (Galenianos et al., 2009; Reuter & Caulkins, 2004). The prevailing view is that retail drug markets are sustained by the formation of long-term trusting relationships between regular buyers and sellers (Dwyer & Moore, 2010a, 2010b; Galenianos et al., 2009; Reuter & Caulkins, 2004). Despite the marked differences in the organization and operation of drug markets across time and location documented by ethnographers and qualitative researchers (Coomber & Maher, 2006; Kotarba, Fackler, Johnson, & Dunlap, 2010; May, Duffy, Few, & Hough, 2005; May & Hough, 2004), the importance of ongoing trusting relationships between buyers and sellers at the retail level has been demonstrated in a number of studies (Bammer & Sengoz, 1994; Coomber & Maher, 2006; Maher, Dixon, Lynskey, & Hall, 1998). However, the development of trusted relationships may not be the prevailing strategy across all illicit drugs markets or indeed, for every actor within a marketplace (e.g., Kotarba et al., 2010).

Although there is no universally accepted definition of trust, a view shared by cross-disciplinary organizational theorists is that "trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another" (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998, p. 395). Furthermore, that paradigm believes that trust in another party can only develop if one party is uncertain how the other party will behave and has the potential to lose from the other party's behavior, and the interests of the first party cannot be achieved without relying on the other (Rousseau et al., 1998). This understanding of trust is substantiated by dealer accounts of their association with drug users.

Dealers regard relationships with customers as a constant source of risk (Denton, 2001). Incarcerated dealers in the United Kingdom were motivated to establish trusted ongoing relationships with customers as a way to mitigate the risk of detection by law enforcement and ensure payment for drugs. Indeed, some dealers noted avoiding customers they do not know to reduce the risk of being reported to police if a customer is arrested (Matrix Knowledge Group, 2007). …

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