MAOA, Drug Selling, and Violent Victimization

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
CJR689375 368..383 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2017, Vol. 42(4) 368-383
MAOA, Drug Selling, and Violent ª 2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
Victimization: Evidence of a
DOI: 10.1177/0734016816689375
Gene Environment Interaction
Stephen J. Watts1, Melissa J. Tetzlaff-Bemiller2,
and James C. McCutcheon1
Involvement in drug markets is a significant risk factor for criminal victimization. Separately, the
monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene has been identified as correlating with risky and antisocial
behaviors and moderating the effects of environmental risk factors on antisocial behaviors. Using a
sample drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (N ¼ 8,860), we
explore whether MAOA genotype moderates the effect of drug selling on violent victimization.
Results show that drug selling increases violent victimization among males, but not females. Addi-
tionally, the effect of drug selling on violent victimization among males is greater among the carriers
of the 2R/3R alleles of MAOA, providing evidence of Gene Environment interaction. These results
appear despite a number of controls that potentially make the drug selling–violent victimization
relationship spurious. Implications of the findings are discussed.
victimization, drug selling, MAOA, gene–environment interactions
Engagement in drug markets through drug selling is a risk factor for criminal victimization. This is
due in large part to the unregulated nature of illicit drug markets, which means that informal social
control, in particular violent self-help, is a normative way to deal with interpersonal disputes
(Anderson, 2000; Bourgois, 2003; Jacobs, Topalli, & Wright, 2000; Jacques & Wright, 2011;
Jacques, Wright, & Allen, 2014; Topalli, Wright, & Fornango, 2002). Yet despite the documented
link between drug selling and risks for victimization, little research to date has attempted to identify
the factors that might moderate this relationship. In particular, research is lacking that has examined
the role biology plays in the relationship between drug selling and victimization.
The current study integrates the literature on drug selling and victimization with a biosocial
framework, wherein negative outcomes result from an interaction between an individual’s
1 Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA
2 Department of Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Social Work, Augusta University, Augusta, GA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Stephen J. Watts, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Memphis, 311 McCord Hall, Memphis,
TN 38152, USA.

Watts et al.
environment (here, selling drugs) and their genotype. This type of study is needed, as scientific
research in a number of fields has shown that genetics matter for a number of life outcomes when
combined with the right environmental triggers (Caspi et al., 2002; Guo, Roettger, & Cai, 2008).
Specifically, we draw on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health
(Add Health) to examine whether the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene moderates the effect of
drug selling on violent victimization while controlling for a number of important variables that
potentially make the drug selling–violent victimization relationship spurious. Prior research has
shown that MAOA is related to a host of negative outcomes, usually by moderating the effects of
key variables in the criminology and victimology literatures (Beaver et al., 2010; Caspi et al., 2002;
Foley et al., 2004; Kim-Cohen et al., 2006; Nilsson et al., 2006). We examine these effects separately
for males and females for two reasons. First, we anticipate, based on prior research, that males will
be much more likely to report drug selling (Adler, 1993) and violent victimization (Lauritsen &
Heimer, 2008). Second, this split is important because females carry two copies of the MAOA gene,
while males carry one, meaning that any gene–environment interaction (G E) effects involving
MAOA are likely to differ by gender (Caspi et al., 2002). In the following sections, we review the
literature on drug selling and victimization and how MAOA fits in with this literature.
Drug Selling and Victimization
There is much support for an association between drug selling and both violent offending and violent
victimization (Bourgois, 2003; Curtin & Wendel, 2007; Goldstein, 1985; Small et al., 2013).1 There
is, in fact, an expectation of violence by individuals involved in the illegal drug trade (Wright &
Decker, 1997). Goldstein (1985) posits that violence is inherent to the unregulated illicit drug trade.
His typology classifies three types of violence in relation to drug markets. These classifications
include psychopharmacological, economic-compulsive, and systemic. The first, psychopharmaco-
logical, focuses on the pharmacological effects of illicit drugs and how those effects can lead to
violence. The second, economic-compulsive, involves the violent ventures that are conducted to
obtain the finances needed to procure illicit drugs. Lastly, systemic violence is related to the
unregulated nature of illicit drug markets, where there is no form of legitimate conflict resolution
available (Curtis & Wendel, 2007; Goldstein, 1985). Systemic violence includes violent action that
derives from disputes between distributors, dealers, and buyers. Importantly, dealers may initiate
and act as offenders but may also be attacked by others, including buyers, competition, an authority
figure in their organization, or an outsider.
Due to the violence implicit in the illegal drug trade, drug dealers are at increased risk for both
violent offending and violent victimization. When drug dealers violently offend or are targeted for
violence, there is a higher level of danger and risk of lethal violence because of the need to engage in
violence as a form of social control. Blumstein (1995a) highlights the relationship between drug
markets and violence in association with the use of firearms. Individuals engaged in drug markets
arm themselves for self-defense. Blumstein (1995a) argues that individuals fall into an “arms race”
that actually escalates violence among participants in illicit drug markets. In one study, Blumstein
and Cork (1996) find that increases in the illegal drug trade in New York coincided with an
escalation of gun-related homicide among juveniles. An additional layer of risk is added for those
involved in the drug trade because robbers and burglars consider drug dealers attractive targets since
they are known to have both money and drugs and are considered very unlikely to contact law
enforcement to report their victimizations (Wright & Decker, 1997). This latter point means that the
drug dealer is reliant on informal social control when they have a grievance, where the response and
deterrent is retaliation, which is often violent in nature (Anderson, 2000; Bourgois, 2003; Jacobs
et al., 2000; Jacques & Wright, 2011; Jacques, Allen, & Wright, 2014; Topalli et al., 2002). Such
retaliation puts drug dealers under the threat of further returned victimization. Through this process,

Criminal Justice Review 42(4)
violence becomes a normative mode to the drug dealer, as it develops through common interactive
means (Burgois, 2003; Burgois, Prince, & Moss, 2004).
As mentioned above, these risks for a drug dealer are further compounded by the fact that when
victimized, they are limited in their options, as reporting a victimization will increase the chances
that their own illicit activities are discovered by law enforcement. Furthermore, drug dealers often
don’t believe police will be of any assistance in their case (Moskos, 2008). Even if reporting was a
more viable option, it would put the drug dealer under threat of further violence from the street
element because they could be labeled a “snitch” and face violent victimization due to the applica-
tion of this label (Rosenfeld, Jacobs, & Wright, 2003). This process of social control is known by
those who wish to take advantage of the criminal opportunity by stealing from a drug dealer, thus
further increasing the risk of victimization for the dealer. Due to the few legitimate options available
for dealing with victimization, those involved in illicit drug markets become attractive targets who
respond to violence with violence, forming a vicious cycle of victimization that is hard to break out
of. The next section will illustrate how genetics fit in to the drug selling–violent victimization
MAOA and G E
Research examining the genetic basis for disparate life outcomes has tended to focus on genes
involved in the regulation of neurotransmitter activity in the brain. One gene that has received much
attention in the literature is the MAOA gene. The MAOA gene encodes the MAOA enzyme, which
metabolizes neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, and plays a key
role in regulating behavior (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). Since the MAOA gene is found on the X
chromosome, males have only a single copy while females have two copies. Research to date has
suggested that it may only be males who are affected by MAOA genotype in regard to risky and
antisocial behaviors (Beaver et al., 2010; Simons et al., 2011a).2 The findings concerning MAOA
and risky and antisocial behaviors have been so consistent that MAOA has been given the moniker
of “the warrior gene” (Beaver et al., 2010; Holland &...

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