Where Do Dealers Solicit Customers and Sell Them Drugs? A Micro-Level Multiple Method Study

Published date01 November 2015
Date01 November 2015
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2015, Vol. 31(4) 376 –408
© 2015 SAGE Publications
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986215608535
Where Do Dealers Solicit
Customers and Sell Them
Drugs? A Micro-Level Multiple
Method Study
Wim Bernasco1,2 and Scott Jacques3
According to a rational choice theory of crime location choice, offenders commit
crimes at locations where the mix of expected rewards and costs is optimal. The
present study applied this general theory to a very specific crime—illicit drug
dealing in an open air drug market—and tested it in the Red Light District and its
neighboring area in downtown Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Data were collected
in interviews with 50 dealers of illicit drugs and through systematic observations
of the 262 street segments in the study area. It was expected that dealers prefer
locations where expected earnings relative to invested time and effort is high and
where the risk of apprehension is low. The quantitative findings seem to confirm
that dealers go to places where the likelihood of successfully soliciting customers
is high, but no evidence is found that they avoid places with informal or formal
social control. Qualitative data collected in the same interviews reveal that dealers
view social control as a nuisance and risk that can be evaded. We conclude by
discussing the implications of our findings for criminological theory and research
location choice, drug dealing, social control, competition
1Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
3Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
Corresponding Author:
Wim Bernasco, Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR), P.O. Box
71304, 1008 BH Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Email: wbernasco@nscr.nl
608535CCJXXX10.1177/1043986215608535Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeBernasco and Jacques
Bernasco and Jacques 377
To be a successful drug dealer, you must know where to find customers, how to draw
their attention, and how to convince them that the quality and price of your product is
competitive. Yet to evade arrest, you must also know which places to avoid. As is true
for many other facets of life, location choice is a critical decision in drug dealing that
has far-reaching consequences. As said by one dealer,
Similar to the business of real estate sales, it is an issue of location, location, location. Now,
not all locations give you the same rewards for your time and the effort that you put into
your business. You must know the right ones, or the better ones. (St. Jean, 2007, p. 115)
The aim of the present study is to find out what affects street dealers’ choices about
where to solicit customers and make sales. What are the selection criteria that guide
their choices? Are they attracted by the availability of potential customers? Are they
deterred by formal and informal social control? To answer these questions, we used
structured and semi-structured data that were obtained through interviews with 50
street dealers and through systematic observations of 262 street segments in down-
town Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
The extant theoretical and empirical literature on criminal location choices (e.g.,
Bernasco, Block, & Ruiter, 2013) is primarily concerned with predatory crimes such
as burglary and robbery, that is, crimes in which one party (the offender) wins some-
thing that the other party (the victim) loses. An open question is whether the same
principles that guide the location choices of predatory offenders also apply to location
choices of offenders that commit consensual crimes such as drug dealing. These
crimes in many ways resemble legal transactions in which goods are exchanged for
money, and thus those location choices might be different from location choices in
predatory crimes.
Following prior work on retail drug markets (e.g., Eck, 1995; Rengert, 1996), our
theoretical perspective combines elements from economics and criminology. It is
based on the view that selling illicit drugs is a business activity. Consequently, the
concepts developed in economics to describe how legal businesses decide where to
advertise and sell their products and services can help explain where illicit dealers
recruit customers and sell drugs. However, whereas the literature on retail business
location choice usually takes for granted that businesses abide the law and comply
with rules, the criminological perspective recognizes that illicit dealers run their busi-
nesses in a criminal environment. They cannot open shops and overtly advertise their
products and solicit customers. They must work in the streets and operate covertly, and
they must deal with law enforcement and the presence of criminal predators. The crim-
inological perspective thus adds the risk of apprehension to the perspective that is
articulated in the economics literature. These ideas blend well with the rational choice
perspective in the criminological literature (Cornish & Clarke, 1986).
The two main features that distinguish our study from prior work on the geography
of drug dealing are the detailed spatial scale of analysis and the emphasis on multiple
methods. With respect to spatial scale, prior studies on the geography of drug markets are
378 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 31(4)
mostly either citywide studies that attempt to explain the spatial distribution of dealing hot
spots across metropolitan areas, or evaluation studies of policy measures targeting dealing
hot spots (e.g., Aitken, Moore, Higgs, Kelsall, & Kerger, 2002; Weisburd et al., 2006).
Very few studies zoom in to the level of street blocks and investigate the spatial behavior
of dealers at the micro-level, such as whether to solicit customers on one street block or
just around the corner. Two notable exceptions are an ethnographic study in Chicago (St.
Jean, 2007) and a study in Philadelphia (McCord & Ratcliffe, 2007) that was based on
drug arrests. Both studies demonstrated that dealers often search for customers close to
small-scale and cash-intensive retail businesses such as bars, liquor stores, pawnshops,
and check-cashing outlets. Like these two studies, this study investigates street dealers’
location choices at a detailed spatial resolution. The spatial units of analysis are street seg-
ments that are small enough to be overseen and overheard from a single point. The
detailed spatial scale allows us to measure and analyze relevant features of the environ-
ment in much greater detail than has been the case in most prior studies.
The second distinguishing feature of the present study is its use of multiple meth-
ods. We combine data from prestructured interview questions, narrative data from
semi-structured open-ended interview questions, and data collected through system-
atic street-level observations. Consequently, the analytical strategy includes both
strongly structured (“quantitative”) and weakly structured (“qualitative”) techniques.
The reasons for applying multiple methods include the wish to complement informa-
tion on revealed preferences (i.e., where respondents had actually solicited customers
and sold drugs) with information on stated preferences (i.e., the subjective reasons
they provided for their choices).
We end this introduction with a brief overview of the remainder of the article. The
next section develops a theoretical framework for location choice in dealing, combin-
ing economic and criminological perspectives. It ends with the formulation of two
research questions and a series of hypotheses. The third section describes the data col-
lection procedures and analytical strategies that were applied to answer the research
questions. The fourth section presents the findings with respect to the strongly struc-
tured (“quantitative”) data, which are subsequently further interpreted using weakly
structured data (“open interview questions”). The final section discusses the results
and suggests avenues for future research.
Economic and Criminological Perspectives
There are two main literatures to draw from when developing a theory of location
choice in dealing. First, there is an economics literature on retail business location
choice. It studies how legal firms locate themselves in space in relation to the locations
of prospective customers. Second, there is a criminological literature on how offenders
in general select target locations on the basis of expected profits, effort, and risk.
Drug Dealing as Retail Business
One way to approach the spatial choice of dealers is to put in the foreground their role as
entrepreneurs and retailers (Eck, 1995; Rengert, 1996). In this approach, the illicit nature

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