Social supply of cannabis in Australia

Australian retail markets for most illicit drugs, including cannabis, are based significantly upon friendships and occur in closed settings. This has been described as ‘lounge room’, as opposed to ‘street’, dealing (Nicholas 2008). Similar observations have been made in other countries, and in the UK the term ‘social supply’ was coined to describe this aspect of the drug market where a supplier who is not considered to be a ‘drug dealer proper’ brokers, facilitates or sells drugs, for little or no financial gain, to friends and acquaintances (Hough et al. 2003). In this qualitative and quantitative study, a convenience sample of 200 cannabis users aged between 18 and 30 years were interviewed in Perth (n=80), Melbourne (n=80) and Armidale (NSW; n=40). They were recruited online and through the mainstream street press, flyers, and snowballing. Participants mostly described a closed market characterised by high levels of trust between consumers and suppliers already known to each other at the level of adjacent pairs or small group networks, typically selling in private. Their qualitative accounts of what happened last time they scored or obtained cannabis provided rich descriptions of the process of obtaining cannabis for these young users. Although participants often described their main cannabis supplier as ‘a friend’, roughly three-fifths reported this relationship was a friendship first and two-fifths reported it was a supply relationship first. Overall, 94 percent of the sample had ever supplied cannabis and 78 percent had done so in the past six months. Although most people who engaged in supply understood that their activities would be regarded as such in law, most did not consider themselves to be a dealer. The findings have implications for the policing of social supply drug markets, the public education of participants in the social supply market and how social supply offences are dealt with in law.

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A discussion paper prepared at the request of the Conference of Commissioners of Police of Australasia and the South West Pacific Region. Prepared by Roger Nicholas, Senior Research Officer National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund. March 2008.