In the News: Drugs for Friends

Are people who buy opioids for friends essentially drug dealers?

Photo by B_A from Pixabay

If a person dies of a drug overdose, should the friend who helped the addict buy the drugs be held legally responsible for death? Reporter Paige Williams raises this provocative question in a fascinating article in last week's issue of the New Yorker.

The article is a great read, told through the story of two young Ohio women embroiled in the opioid crisis. It held a special interest for me, though, because of my interest in middlemen: in this case, not the conventional middlemen in the drug trade (the drug dealers), but the regular people (usually addicts themselves) who buy drugs from the dealers on behalf of their friends (usually fellow addicts).

Everyday matchmakers

Since the people serving as the middleman between the drug dealer and the fellow addict aren't professionals in the drug trade — they are doing it as a favor — they are what I call an "everyday matchmaker." (My book's subtitle is "How Brokers, Agents, Dealers, and Everyday Matchmakers Create Value and Profit.") These informal intermediaries are not making any money off the illegal transactions: their friend reimburses them for the actual price of whatever quantity of heroin (or whatever the drug) that they buy from the dealer.

So should these people who buy drugs for friends be treated the same way as drug dealers are, legally responsible for the deaths of the users whom they supplied? Some lawmakers think so; wanting to seem tough on crime, decades ago they wrote broad anti-drug homicide laws that encompassed "death resulting" offenses, including deaths that come from the mere sharing of drugs.

One unintended consequence of this not-very-well-thought-out legislation: instead of targeting high-level traffickers—the kinds of dealers responsible for most of the drug sales—police can easily score points just by going after these low-level offenders. As an anthropologist who has studied heroin markets explains, in the intractable opioid crisis treating overdoses as homicides has become "low-hanging fruit."

The anthropologist, Lee Hoffer, certainly sees the parallel between the professional drug dealer and the friend who helps a friend score drugs: drug dealers and everyday matchmakers both require trust, and both benefit in some way from providing the service they do. In fact, Hoffer uses the word "broker" to refer to these everyday matchmakers, "broker" being the term sociologists use for someone playing a particular facilitating role in a social network. Hoffer writes that "a buyer trusts the broker to make a purchase and return with drugs; a broker trusts that if they do so the buyer will reward them. In this way, brokering is a ‘favor’ and an economic service.” In other words, drug dealers and friends who procure drugs for friends are both middlemen.

A key difference

But Hoffer also sees a crucial distinction: even though everyday matchmakers can be said to benefit from these transactions, profit isn't their main goal. Dealers “invest in a quantity of drug to resell,” and then repackage them into smaller quantities for resale. Friends don't do that.

I agree, and it's one reason it's hard to see these everyday matchmakers are predators. But, as Williams shows in her New Yorker article, families of victims often have a different perspective.

Where to read more

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About the author

Marina Krakovsky, the voice behind Power of Three, is the author of The Middleman Economy: How Brokers, Agents, Dealers, and Everyday Matchmakers Create Value and Profit (Palgrave Macmillan). She is also co-author, with economist Kay-Yut Chen, of Secrets of the Moneylab: How Behavioral Economics Can Improve Your Business (Portfolio/Penguin). In her writing, speaking, and consulting, her main focus is on the practical application of ideas from psychology and economics. Her articles and essays have appeared in Discover, FastCompany, the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, O (The Oprah Magazine), Psychology Today, Slate, the Washington Post, Wired, and more.

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