How do drug dealers get their customers

Why some drug buyers get ripped off

Buying drugs is usually illegal. Just in advance. Cannabis, cocaine and the like are nonetheless traded on a gigantic black market. Worldwide drug sales are estimated at $ 320 billion. Drugs are sometimes extremely expensive and literally worth their weight in gold. But some drug buyers pay more than others.

Image: © / selimaksan

The price of a commodity is usually determined by supply and demand. However, illegal drugs are not a normal commodity, and pricing does not follow the same pattern as that of legal merchandise. The criminologist Rémi Boivin from the University of Montreal in Canada has developed a model according to which the price of an illegal drug is heavily influenced by the location of the trade and the local market conditions. The price rises above all when drugs migrate from the mostly poor producing countries to wealthy industrialized countries.

Risk premium

Unlike legal goods, drug traffickers always run an additional risk of being caught or threatened by rival gangs or angry customers. In Boivin's model, this risk is treated like a tax that is added to the price. The riskier the trade, the higher the premium.

This makes drug trafficking a very lucrative business for criminals, especially for those who are at the top of the dealer hierarchy. On the bottom floor in the drug business, however, earnings seem to be significantly lower than commonly assumed. In the book "Freakonomics" from 2005, the economist Steven Levitt and the journalist Stephen Dubner calculate an astonishingly low hourly wage of only 3.30 dollars for the so-called "foot soldiers", who are at the bottom of the dealer pyramid in the USA . Even the minimum wage in the US was about $ 5 higher in 2005.

Levitt and Dubner's calculations are based on meticulously kept books of a drug gang in Chicago. As in a normal company, all transactions were recorded in it. Through a contact with the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, Steven Levitt had the opportunity to gain access to the books. Venkatesh had been with a gang of dealers for several years and eventually got hold of their books when their treasurer went to jail.

It is unclear how representative these values ​​are for dealers in countries other than the USA. It becomes clear, however, that street dealers usually only have one possibility to increase their personal profit: They have to get more money from their customers than usual. In fact, dealers don't rip off every customer. The question arises, which customers are more likely to be victims of rip-offs?

Rip off - a rational decision

In order to get answers to this question, a research team led by study leader Scott Jacques personally interviewed 25 drug dealers in a socially disadvantaged district of St. Louis in the state of Missouri in the USA. Contact was established through street workers who knew their way around the milieu and who trusted the dealers.

In general, drug dealers are notorious for ripping off buyers, writes the research team. Because it is in the nature of the illegal market that customers have no way to go to the police if they think they have been cheated. In the opinion of the research team, weighing the advantages and disadvantages, it is even a rational, i.e. sensible, decision to rip off buyers. Or as one dealer puts it, “I mean, what do you want to do? Do you want to go to the police and say, 'Hey man, he screwed me for an ounce'? Of course not."

The research team names different types of rip-offs: Customers pay higher prices than usual, receive fewer goods or receive poorer quality than agreed. However, when dealers try to cheat a customer, they run the risk that the buyer will notice. This could mean that a future regular customer will be lost. The research team was therefore specifically concerned with the question of how a dealer decides which buyer will be ripped off and which not. “Ultimately, dealers act like any other business person in the sense that they have an interest in repeated business contacts that can be lost if customers feel they have not been treated fairly,” write Jacques and his team.

Six types of buyers who are being ripped off

From the discussions with the dealers, the research team was able to filter out six different types of buyers who are often ripped off by the dealers. The first variety are unknown first-time buyers. Like any retailer, drug dealers also rely on regular customers because they ensure business stability. Any first-time buyer could potentially become a regular customer. However, unknown buyers carry a certain risk. They could be trying to rob the dealer, or they could actually be working with the police. In this respect, the increased price is a kind of risk premium, as Remí Boivin put it.

However, being a well-known buyer does not protect you from being set up by the dealer. The dealers report that sometimes buyers won't bring enough cash for a certain amount. Buyers who don't bring enough money, would therefore be punished by the dealers for their unreliable behavior by handing them out less goods - without the customer knowing.

Uninformed customers on the other hand are completely clueless about the usual prices and quantities, e.g. how much a gram of marijuana costs and what volume a gram should have. Dealer Dirty explained, “I had this young guy who gave me $ 10. But I only gave him marijuana for $ 5. He had no problem with it. He came back often and didn't even notice. "

To find out if a customer is familiar with the customs, dealers would test them. The dealer first hands over a smaller amount than agreed and waits for the customer to react. In this way, he can test whether the buyer can differentiate between correct and incorrect quantities. If it works, he will increase his profit without risk. If the customer becomes suspicious, the dealer still has the option to add something. Then he was just a little wrong.

Anxious buyers are also at risk of being exploited by the dealers. If the dealer notices that a customer does not dare to complain, then that is a risk-free additional business for the dealer. In contrast, so-called annoying buyers punished by a serve, as it were, because they are annoying. Buyers are described as annoying, for example, if they keep complaining that they haven't got enough goods for their money when that is not the case. Then actually giving them too little is what dealers see as a kind of compensatory justice for the eternal nagging.

Finally there is the group of Dependents. They are in the worst bargaining position because they need drugs the most. However, the dealers also gave moral reasons in the interviews. Addicts who steal from others to finance their addiction deserve to be betrayed in their eyes. Dealer Big Mike put it this way: “If you have a job and you go to work to meet your needs, then I don't call you Crack Head, then you just have a drug problem. But when you're out there robbing and stealing and all that shit, that's a crack head. I treat them differently. "

How to avoid rip offs

Presumably, the drug trade in the slums of St. Louis in the USA cannot be transferred one-to-one to German conditions. But the basic principles of dealing with illegal drugs should apply worldwide. Rip offs when buying drugs should not be uncommon in this country either. The simplest method would be to stop buying illegal drugs altogether, especially since possession of illegal drugs can be punishable by penalties of up to five years under the Narcotics Act.

People for whom this is not an option can at least orientate themselves on the six types that Scott Jacques and his team have described. So it would be advisable not to fall into any of the categories mentioned.


  • Federal Foreign Office> Combating Drugs
  • Boivin, R. (2014). Risks, prices, and positions: A social network analysis of illegal drug trafficking in the world-economy. International Journal of Drug Policy. 25, 235-243.
  • Jacques, S., Allen, A. & Wright, R. (2014) Drug dealers ’rational choices on which customers to rip-off. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25, 251-256.
  • Levitt, S. & Dubner, S. (2007). Freakonomics. Munich: Goldmann.