That nasty bloke standing on the corner near your kid’s school.
This is the character we’ve all been lead to believe is responsible for getting our kids hooked and ruining their lives, but the reality of how drugs are bought and sold is, in most cases, dramatically different.
Paraphrasing Chris Rock as he famously put it in his HBO special “Bring the Pain”1 – drug dealers don’t really need to sell drugs, the drugs sell themselves.
So what we’re really talking about here are people who provide access to drugs, and most of the time they don’t fit the shady drug dealer stereotype.
It’s easy to envisage that nasty bloke on the corner; some shady stranger preying on the community, but in reality the most common way young people are introduced to drugs is through family and friends. An article for The BMJ, the online British Medical Journal, raises concerns about young people’s use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs, and combines data from population surveys, reviews and official reports to find out the truth about drug use and availability. Regular users, the article states, normally buy their own drugs, whereas initial experimentation is usually via friends or family giving or sharing drugs.
“Two thirds of 15 year olds say they know where they can easily buy cannabis; a quarter say it can easily be bought at school.” 2
Dealers work in open, semi-open or closed markets. An open market is where dealers will sell to buyers they know personally; a closed market is where they do not. In an open market dealers will sell to friends. Similarly, a semi-open market refers to informal dealings with friends and acquaintances in locations like clubs and pubs. Closed market deals, however, are made with strangers, and primarily done using mobile phones. These days drugs are also becoming more readily available online, although The BMJ has no concrete evidence yet as to what effects this new form of availability has had on the pattern of drug use.
While the effects of buying drugs online are still uncertain, what is certain is the direct connection between socioeconomic factors and drug availability and involvement. A BMJ study investigating the likelihood of people in disadvantaged areas coming into contact with drug dealers compared to those living in more advantaged areas concluded that “physical and social characteristics of a neighbourhood can set the stage for opportunities to become involved with drugs” 3. Put simply, the ability to buy and sell drugs is far more common in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The study also discovered that it was statistically more likely for young men to be approached by a drug dealer than young women, and that race and ethnicity had little bearing on results.
In Australia, we have laws that differentiate between drug users and drug suppliers; people who keep drugs for personal use and people who supply or traffic drugs. Penalties apply for possessing, using, making or selling drugs, and for driving under the influence of drugs. In some states random roadside testing for cannabis and amphetamines is now also in place.
There are severe penalties for people possessing and selling drugs. These penalties take various factors into consideration, including drug amount, type and intent.
Trafficking offences are divided into three categories: indictable, commercial and large commercial. The following table examines supply amounts for all three categories.4
|Cannabis leaf/heads||1 kg||25 kg||100 kg|
|Heroin||5 gm||250 gm||1 kg|
|Amphetamine||5 gm||250 gm||1 kg|
|Ecstasy||5 gm/ 25 tabs||0.5 kg||2 kg|
|LSD||0.005 gm/ 25 tabs||0.5 gm||2 gm|
The NSW government lists the penalties for supplying in each category. $220,000 and fifteen years in jail (ten years for cannabis) is the maximum penalty for offenders charged with dealing an indictable amount of drugs; $385,000 and twenty years in jail (fifteen years for cannabis) for commercial amounts; and $550,000 and life imprisonment (twenty years for cannabis) for large commercial amounts. Penalties go up in severity not just for the amount of drugs involved, but also the type of drug. Drugs fall into two categories – schedule 1 and schedule 2. Schedule 1 drugs include amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Schedule 2 drugs include cannabis, morphine and barbiturates. The penalties for dealing or possessing schedule 1 drugs are more severe than those for schedule 2. Penalty severity also varies according to intent. Someone found with a small amount of cannabis for personal use will be treated more leniently than someone in possession of a larger quantity intended for sale.
The following table examines trafficable threshold quantities of drugs in Australia. These quantities refer to what is considered a ‘trafficable amount’ of drugs; that is, drugs intended for distribution as opposed to personal use. The table takes into consideration drug quantities a user is ‘likely’ to possess or purchase for personal use. Threshold quantities vary according to drug type, jurisdiction and means of measurement (pure grams versus mixed grams – pure grams are shown in brackets next to the mixed gram amount).
Trafficable threshold quantities in Australian states and territories by jurisdiction and drug type (mixed grams)5
|ACTa||8.1 (2)||20 (2)||3.3 (2)||3.3 (0.5)||300|
|Qlda||10.8 (2)||14.6 (2)||10.5 (2)||9.6 (2)||500|
Through establishing threshold quantities, each jurisdiction is able to specify whether they believe offenders are in possession of drugs for personal use or for the purposes of supply. If the latter, the offender is liable to be tried as a drug trafficker, and faces significantly greater penalties than those for possession, including up to fifteen years imprisonment in most states.
Drug traffickers fuel the drug industry and addiction. The severity of the punishment is meant to mirror the severity of the crime – however, the current threshold system is far from infallible. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, some drug users are at risk of being identified and charged as drug traffickers, as the ‘controversial’ threshold figures don’t accurately represent trafficable amounts.
On top of this, it is common for drug dealers to also be drug users. In fact, many dealers sell drugs in order to finance their own habit. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, it is a recognised behaviour, and also an offence in all EU Member States. Referred to as ‘user-dealers’ or ‘addict-pushers’, these people “occupy a middle ground between the serious offence of drug distribution and the more medical problem of drug addiction.” 6 Judges will often take addiction into consideration when passing a sentence.
Taking all of this into consideration, the current legal system does its best to deter young people from taking excessive risks and to punish those guilty of fueling the drug trade. However, the flaws in the system mean we run a great risk of punishing the vulnerable as well as the guilty.
What we see from patterns of drug consumption in young people is that it more closely resembles network marketing or party plan selling than the traditional “street dealing” model.
Although, to be sure, there are people that sell drugs in the streets, and there are criminals (sometimes violent criminals) involved in drug supply, the laws that we have in Australia currently to address drug supply are not in touch with the way in which young people access drugs.
A more “traditional” approach to this problem would be to have a huge and expensive media campaign aimed at educating young people about the dangers of buying for friends, telling them that having commercial quantities is risky.
I think we’re far better off looking at creating laws that target the right kinds of criminals, and impose appropriate sentences.
The quantities deemed to be “trafficking levels” are frighteningly low if you are familiar with the patterns of use amongst young people.
We see people in our programmes who are unwittingly placing themselves at tremendous risk of very harsh sentences by doing nothing more than helping their friends get cheaper access to drugs (or selling to friends in order to fund their own drug use).
Even holding “large commercial quantities” is not outside the realms of possibility for heavy personal drug users … all it takes is for them to be buying for a few friends and all of a sudden they’re risking life in prison.
It’s a cop out to say that these young people are stupid and they should know better.
Do you really think we should condemn someone to a life in prison for making a mistake like this so early in life?
What if it were your child?
1. Chris Rock-Bring The Pain - Youtube
2. Young people's access to tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs by David Ogilvie, MRC fellow (firstname.lastname@example.org)1, Laurence Gruer, director of public health science2, Sally Haw, senior public health adviser 3
3. ‘‘Unequal opportunity’’: neighbourhood disadvantage and the chance to buy illegal drugs by C L Storr, C-Y Chen, J C Anthony
4. Possession, use and supply by Drugs and the law by Steve Bolt, online edition 2011
5. Australian threshold quantities for ‘drug trafficking’: Are they placing drug users at risk of unjustified sanction? by Caitlin Hughes, Alison Ritter, Nicholas Cowdery and Benjamin Phillips, ISSN 1836-2206, Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, March 2014
6. Penalties for illegal drug trafficking by European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)