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Drug Dealing in Open-Air Markets

Guide No.31 (2005)

Alex Harocopos & Mike Hough

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Translation(s): Tráfico de Drogas en Mercados al Aire Libre (Español)

The Problem of Drug Dealing in Open-Air Markets

Open-air markets represent the lowest level of the drug distribution network. Low-level markets need to be tackled effectively not only because of the risks posed to market participants, but also to reduce the harms that illicit drug use can inflict on the local community. This guide begins by describing the problem and reviewing factors that increase the risks of drug dealing in open-air markets. The guide then identifies a series of questions that might assist you in analyzing your local open-air drug market problem. Finally, the guide reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

As with any other type of commodity, illicit drugs are traded in a market where buyer and seller have to locate one another in order to conduct a transaction.1 There are two types of retail market systems: those that are person-specific, relying on social networks to communicate information about vendors, potential customers, their location and prices; and those that are place-specific.2 Open-air drug markets operate in geographically well-defined areas at identifiable times so buyers and sellers can locate one another with ease. A variety of drugs may be sold, most commonly to include: heroin, crack, cocaine, and marijuana.

Open-air markets are also likely to be open markets. This means that there will be few barriers to access, and anyone who looks like a plausible buyer will be able to purchase drugs.3 An open market has advantages for both buyers and sellers. Buyers know where to go in order to find the drugs that they want and can weigh quality against price, and sellers are able to maximize customer access.

However, the nature of open markets means that market participants are vulnerable both to police enforcement, and the dangers of buying from strangers—which may include rip-offs and robbery. Furthermore, if a buyer is dissatisfied with the transaction, there can rarely be any recompense as participants in illegal markets lack the usual means for resolving business conflicts. Especially in high value markets, this can lead to systemic violence—whereby force is the normal means by which disagreements are resolved.4

In response to the risks of law enforcement, open markets tend to transform into closed markets where sellers will only do business with buyers they know or with buyers for whom another trusted person will vouch. The degree to which markets are closed—the barriers of access put in the way of new buyers—will depend largely on the level of threat posed by the police. Intensive policing can quickly transform open markets into closed ones.5 Mobile communication technologies such as pagers and cell phones also aid this process.6 Although closed markets may exist alongside open markets, their method of operation is different and requires its own analysis and response, which will not be addressed in this guide.

Dealing with open-air drug markets presents a considerable challenge for the police. Simply arresting market participants will have little impact in reducing the size of the market or the amount of drugs consumed.7 This is especially true of low-level markets where if one dealer is arrested, there are, more than likely, several others to take their place. Moreover, drug markets can be highly responsive to enforcement efforts but the form of that response is sometimes an adaptation that leads to unintended consequences, including displacement or increased revenue for dealers with fewer competitors.8

Drug dealing in open-air markets generates or contributes to a wide range of social disorder and drug-related crime in the surrounding community that can have a marked effect on the local residents' quality of life.9 Residents may feel a diminished sense of public safety as drug-related activity becomes more blatant10 and there is evidence that communal areas such as parks are often taken over by drug sellers and their customers, rendering them unusable to the local population.11 Spin-off problems associated with drug dealing in open-air markets include:

‡ The links between sex and drug markets have been well-documented. May et al. (1999) [Full text] [Briefing Note]found that the majority of the sex-workers they interviewed were drug-dependent. See also the POP Guide on Street Prostitution.
§ See the POP Guide on Gun Violence Among Serious Young Offenders. 

Related Problems

Drug dealing in open-air markets is only one drug-related problem that police must address. Associated problems not directly addressed in this guide include:

Factors Contributing to Drug Dealing in Open-Air Markets

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good measures of effectiveness, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

When and Where Open-Air Drug Markets Operate

The characteristics of a drug market are often dependent on the type of drug being sold. In some areas, markets for different drugs exist alongside one another although their methods of operation vary. It is probable that most illicit drug buying takes place in private or semi-public locations.12 Given the choice, most users would buy from sellers they know and trust rather than run the risk of being ripped off or apprehended by the police. However, it may be that a need for regular supplies of drugs obtained in the shortest time possible locks problem users into street-based open markets. This may also be true for novice or casual users who have not yet established an alternative reliable source.

Open-air drug markets are often located in inner city or urban areas. There are four geographical features common to this type of drug market: firstly, they are likely to be located in economically depressed neighborhoods; secondly, dealers will sell from static sites so customers know where to find them; thirdly, the market will probably be located around a transport hub, or along a main arterial route where there is a level of legitimate activity and proximity to through routes to allow buyers easy access to the market area; and finally, markets that have a reputation for selling drugs can grow large in size, and the concentration of activity in a small area will be hard to hide.13 The compulsive nature of drugs such as crack cocaine or the physical dependency which can occur from prolonged heroin use means that the market in which these drugs are sold could be open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The operational times of markets for other drugs including cannabis and ecstasy are probably more restricted.

Picture of a low-income housing unit that functions as an open air drug market

Urban areas with poorly-maintained, high-density low-income housing are often the site of open-air drug markets.

The location of an open-air drug market can also be influenced by situational factors. The local environment can facilitate drug dealing in a number of different ways. Thick or overgrown foliage offers a shield for exchanges of money or drugs. Poor street lighting may intensify residents' fear of crime and may exacerbate incidences of robbery. Street layout determines suitable places to stand so sellers can watch for the police as well as providing easy escape routes in case of enforcement activity. Road systems and parking may also influence customers driving in from other areas; and vacant buildings can serve as a discrete place to use drugs after purchase.14

Key figures in the function of open-air drug markets are "place managers" such as landlords, housing authorities, local business residents and tenants associations. Those who diligently control their apartment buildings or the business premises forecourt will reduce the chance of an illicit market becoming established in their neighborhood, and drug sellers will often operate from locations where place managers do not attempt to exert any control over illicit activity.15 Open-air drug markets are therefore more likely to become established in areas where there is a high rate of rental properties and/or public housing rather than in owner-occupied neighborhoods.

Identifying the exact locations of open-air drug markets is the first step towards targeting and subsequently eliminating them. Credit: Baltimore Police Department

The Structure of Open-Air Drug Markets

In order to understand the effect of police activities on open-air drug markets, it is important to consider the structure of their social organization. Some open-air drug markets are operated by groups with clear hierarchies and well-defined job functions.16 Other drug distribution networks consist of fragmented and fluid systems populated by small groups of opportunistic entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds.17

At least four different types of organization for open-air drug markets exist:

  1. Markets dominated by "freelance sellers," characterized by a lack of formal hierarchy and alliances conducted on an ad-hoc basis.
  2. Markets dominated by family-based businesses that may have evolved out of freelance markets when groups of relatives begin to dominate their local area and drive out competition.
  3. Markets dominated by culture-based organizations—family-based organizations may grow into businesses with a shared common culture.
  4. Market places dominated by corporations, which represent the highest level of organizational structure.18

It is important to try and identify which type of organization is operating in your area in order to try to predict the effect that efforts to close the market will have.†

† The social organization of drug markets will determine on what level displacement will occur. Research conducted by Curtis and Sviridoff (1994) found that where the market was a monopoly run by a few business owners, street-level dealing was shut-down for a few months thereby displacing the market to new locations. In a second market operated by "freelancers," the market was barely displaced due to the fact that sellers felt unable to move to new territories because of their lack of support.

Dealers operating in open markets represent the lowest level of the distribution network and often will be selling in order to finance their own use. Selling drugs provides those who are socially excluded and unemployed with a means of earning money that can be highly profitable, does not require education or training, and presents relatively low risk in terms of enforcement.19 Those operating in this type of market are unlikely to sell a substantial quantity of drugs to one customer because firstly, they may not have a sufficient supply and secondly, they will be reluctant to carry a large quantity on them at one time for fear of arrest. However, in a busy market the number of daily transactions can be high. Within the community, sellers may attempt to buy the cooperation of local residents or employ them in various roles, for example, a mother with a baby could be a "look-out" or "holder." Other roles include the following:

  • "Steerers," who refer customers to a particular dealer
  • "Touts," who are employed to find customers
  • "Middle-men," who transport money and drugs between buyer and seller, who do not meet.20

Supply and Demand

Popular debate about drugs tends to take for granted that illicit drug use is supply-led, and that illicit drug use is best controlled by stopping drugs getting into the country and onto the streets. On the other hand, it has been suggested that supply follows demand and is a response to it.21 In reality, there is a dynamic and interactive relationship between the two: if there were no supply of illicit drugs, no demand would ever evolve: and, of course, unless drugs offered users some immediate attraction, there would be no demand.22

A distinction is often made between supply reduction strategies and demand reduction strategies. However, this becomes hard to maintain because one will very likely affect the other. Reductions in the supply of drugs will eventually affect prices, which in turn should affect demand, especially of new and occasional users. Despite this, little is known about the impact that supply reduction has on prices, or the relationship between price and demand. Enforcement could lead to price increases in two ways. Firstly, removing drugs from the supply chain should result in limited availability and thus an increase in price. Secondly, the increased risks for market participants concomitant with enforcement should translate into higher prices.

It is difficult to untangle the effect that supply reduction strategies have on the price of drugs. In actuality, drug prices in several cities have declined in recent years23 although without enforcement, prices may have fallen even further. However, it is also likely that supply reduction strategies have been insufficient in maintaining or increasing prices. In addition, drug markets are capable of adapting quickly to enforcement efforts and effective enforcement can sometimes bring about perverse effects.24 According to this argument, enforcement leads to sustained or increased risks of criminal sanctions; these risks are translated into maintained or increased prices; but the net result is to attract more people into the highly lucrative—if risky—drug business.

It is also important to consider how drug prices will affect levels of consumption. If most illicit drug use is controlled, an increase in price should lead to a decrease in demand. However, problem drug users will be more inflexible in their ability to stop using than other users and are likely to simply spend more. In this case, it is important to find strategies that provide other non-financial deterrents to discourage use.

Street-level Enforcement

A factor contributing to the emergence of open-air drug markets was the low priority given to street-level drug enforcement. Until the mid-1980s, traditional narcotics enforcement in the United States concentrated resources on wholesale drug activity. This was partly due to the Knapp Commission Report (1972), which lambasted the New York City Police Department for widespread corruption related to local drug enforcement. The consequence of this report was that street-level enforcement across the country was effectively halted; neighborhood patrol officers were replaced by reactive units whose mission was to respond to, rather than prevent crime† and open-air markets began to thrive.25

† Zimmer (1990) noted: "Removed from daily contact with specific neighborhoods, patrol officers thus lost both the opportunity and motivation to enforce standards of conduct critical to order maintenance."

The emergence of crack cocaine in the early 1980s fuelled already buoyant drug markets and forced the police to reexamine street-level enforcement. Police authorities responded to the idea that enforcement tactics had been targeted at the wrong level of distribution and aimed to disrupt street-level markets, making them unpredictable for both buyer and seller. A principle of this method was "inconvenience policing," which aimed to increase the drug search time or to otherwise place obstacles in the way of the buying process. The idea was that although such measures would probably not deter serious and addicted users, casual and novice users would be discouraged from buying and therefore the market would be constricted.26 Enforcement strategies aimed at this level included: high visibility policing, test purchase operations and reverse stings, the efficacy of which are discussed in the responses section. In addition, it became clear that police enforcement alone was ineffective at reducing drug-related activity and latterly there has been an increased focus on multi-agency cooperation to implement innovative approaches such as civil enforcement procedures

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