An Exploratory Study of Ecstasy Distribution

2003 -2006
Principal Investigator: Sheigla Murphy, PhD
Project Director: Paloma Sales, PhD
Supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA14847)

The overall aim of this proposed 36-month project was to conduct an exploratory qualitative study of Ecstasy sellers in San Francisco. The first phase of the project consisted of key informant interviews and field observations in three types of settings identified by our own and other investigators’ work in this area as the main settings where Ecstasy as well as other club drugs were used and sold: 1) raves or public dance parties; 2) clubs; 3) private parties. During the second phase of the research, employing ethnographic sampling techniques, we recruited 120 participants (40 from each type of setting) who 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 interviewee sample predicated on our analyses of the data collected during the first phase.

We interviewed individuals involved in Ecstasy distribution who were 18 years of age or older and who resided in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. By extending the study to relatively low level sellers in a number of different settings, we interviewed a full range of distributors, from user/sellers to sellers who do not use, from initiates to long term dealers, from sellers who sell Ecstasy only to those who sell other club drugs as well, from small scale go-betweens to wholesalers, and from sellers and buyers who are strangers to those who are friends or relatives.

We found a common thread ran through our participants’ descriptions of Ecstasy markets: the salience of interpersonal relationships among buyers and sellers. Buyer-seller relationships influenced Ecstasy dealers’ decisions to initiate sales, perceptions of risk, sales practices, and sales settings. We argue that the nature of buyer-seller relationships plays a major role in drug sales practices and social arrangements. Our Ecstasy dealers had no sophisticated, well-thought-out sales practices because they sold primarily to their friends and Ecstasy use is episodic rather than daily. Business transactions were thus characteristically sporadic and informal. If a dealer’s customers were friends and family, the perception of risk would remain low, thus the sales practices would remain relaxed and informal.

Our findings demonstrate that lay experts in Ecstasy using social networks engaged in folk pharmacology. Ecstasy sellers distributed risk reduction strategies as well as drugs among their networks. Some sellers became lay experts on the drug’s potential benefits and pitfalls, relying upon their own experiences and those of their friends and customers. As members of social worlds where Ecstasy use was customary, having such knowledge about the drug was expected. However, participants’ knowledge of harm reduction techniques may not have always been accurate as it was rarely based on scientific research. The exchange of inaccurate information may endanger users rather than benefit them, which is troubling. It is noteworthy that study participants were only Ecstasy experts insofar as they were experienced drug users and sellers. While some of their knowledge was impressive, given they were not scientists in the field, they lacked complete medical knowledge about Ecstasy and proven harm reduction strategies. If armed with the most science-based and up-to-date information, these sellers could be effective educators.

Although drug sellers are not traditionally seen as peer educators, our findings suggest that sellers are important points of intervention for the dissemination of health related information as friendship networks are a primary link in creating awareness of safer Ecstasy use. Participants reported that their friends were the most trusted sources of information. Findings from our study indicate that targeting sellers with information can be an effective pathway for the propagation of lifesaving information to users.

The role of the social characteristics of sellers and types of sales settings in understanding drug markets is pivotal. In the United States privacy is a privilege, a resource denied to drug sellers from lower social classes. Public drug sales expose dealers to the police and upset the members of the neighborhoods in which such sales take place. Community members’ perceptions of issues of public safety and the infringement of drug selling on their quality of life stigmatizes known drug purveyors and increases their likelihood of social or legal reprisal. The social class of drug sellers – in this case mostly white, male, middle class, educated in school or employed and housed – protected them from having to take the risks of public sales or selling to unknown persons and therefore from exposure to criminal justice agents and social stigma within their communities.