A Qualitative Study of Ecstasy Sellers

2002 -2004
Principal Investigator: Sheigla Murphy, PhD
Project Director: Paloma Sales, PhD
Supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice (2002-IJ-CX-0018)

This project was a qualitative study of Ecstasy drug markets in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ecstasy’s psychopharmacology, reputation among users and the nature of the buyer and sellers’ relationships challenged our understandings of drug distribution practices. In order to examine the nature of Ecstasy drug markets we interviewed 80 individuals involved in Ecstasy distribution who were 18 years of age or older and resided in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The first phase of the project consisted of key informant interviews and field observations in private settings where Ecstasy was used or sold. During the second phase of the study, employing ethnographic sampling techniques, we recruited 80 sellers who had sold or exchanged five or more Ecstasy doses five or more times in the six months prior to interview. We determined the appropriate age, gender, ethnic and sexual orientation breakdowns of our sample predicated on our analyses of the data collected during the first phase. In 2004 Ecstasy was used and sold at dance parties, clubs, concerts, in private homes – that is in wide variety of social gatherings and settings. For this study we concentrated on finding and interviewing sellers who sold in private settings. However, 39 percent (n = 31) of our sellers had sold at clubs or raves in the past and described those experiences for us as well. At time of interview all of the interviewees were selling primarily in private settings.

Interviewees were predominantly White, male, and middle to upper-middle class, housed and in their twenties. All of the interviewees had used Ecstasy, most (93%) before they began selling it. Participants resisted stigmatized drug dealer identities because they were not full time sellers, only sold to friends and did not market or push their drugs. Sellers’ constructed their own labels calling themselves service providers, enablers or facilitators. Participants relied on their friendships with their customers to protect them from theft, violence or police intervention. With some exceptions, participants knew very little about where their Ecstasy came from or how their suppliers priced their products. Through our interview data and online research we found that Ecstasy manufacturers chose specific symbols for their pill brands to convey messages to consumers about their products. The most frequently cited method for testing Ecstasy was “take it yourself” (67%). Unlike cocaine or marijuana sales, selling Ecstasy did not increase sellers’ use. Heavy use increased the likelihood of not feeling the Ecstasy as intensely and experiencing more difficult hangovers. Long-term Ecstasy use was characterized by cycles or phases beginning with peak use periods followed by periods of abstention. Friends motivated them to begin selling Ecstasy, and opportunities to use Ecstasy with their friends kept many in business. Nonetheless, 54 percent reported that they wanted to quit selling citing legal risks, stress, and concern for their customers’ health. Interviewees were working (88%) or planning careers and a pervasive theme was it was time to grow up, stop taking unnecessary risks and assume the conventional social roles that were awaiting them. “Buy and bust” strategies may be difficult to implement in markets characterized by social bonding enhanced by the Ecstasy using experience.

Papers and Reports from the NIDA and NIJ Ecstasy Seller Projects

  • Duterte, M., Jacinto, C., Sales, P. & Murphy, S. “What’s in a Label?” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Volume 41(1) March 2009.
  • Jacinto, C., Duterte, M., Sales, P., & Murphy, S. “‘I’m not a real dealer’: The identity process of Ecstasy sellers.” Journal of Drug Issues, 2008.
  • Jacinto, C., Duterte, M., Sales, P. & Murphy, S. “Maximizing the highs and minimizing the lows: Harm Reduction Guidance within Ecstasy Distribution Networks,” International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 19, Issue 5, 2008.
  • Sales, Paloma & Murphy, S. “San Francisco’s Freelancing Ecstasy Dealers: Towards a Sociological Understanding of Drug Markets,” Journal of Drug Issues, Winter 2007.
  • Murphy, S., Sales, P., Duterte, M., Jacinto, C. and McKearin, G and Jacinto, A. “An Exploratory Study of Ecstasy Distribution,” Final Report to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA14847) September 2007.
  • Murphy, S. Sales, P., Duterte, M., Jacinto, C. and McKearin, G. “A Qualitative Study of Ecstasy Sellers,” Final Report to the National Institute on Justice (2002-IJ-CX-00) February 2005.