Drug Economies, Dealers and Social Marginalization (completed)

The global illegal drug trade has been valued at more than $300 billion per year. The production, spread and consumption of drugs is estimated to make up around 1 percent of the world's GDP. In Norway, as in much of the Western world, drug offences are also the leading cause of imprisonment. But who are punished for these offenses? How is the illegal drug economy organized? What is the symbolic meaning of drugs like heroin, amphetamines and cocaine? What kind of stories do smugglers and large-scale drug dealers tell? And what policies can be formulated to deal with the costs and consequences of illegal drugs?

Illustration picture: Colourbox.no

About the project

Large-scale drug dealers and traffickers are often portrayed as being members of large, hierarchical, mafia-style syndicates. Similarly, several studies of large-scale dealing and trafficking have emphasized rational, entrepreneurial modes of organization. Drug dealing and trafficking have often been regarded as the result of a combination of individual preferences and responses to opportunities in a market.

Studies of street-level drug dealing, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of marginalization and exclusion. Studies from both the U.S. and the Nordic countries reveal how street-level drug dealing can be understood as a response to socioeconomic marginalization. In this project we explore the structure of the illegal drug economy and the trajectories of the actors involved.

We are also interested in the cultural and social aspects of drug use and the narrative dimension of both drug use and drug dealing. We seek a better understanding of drug use by analyzing the life stories of drug users. Interview data allow us to explore how and why some individuals begin using and dealing illegal drugs - and why some are able to quit. Public representations of drug dealing and how they influence both policy outcomes and actors in the illegal drug economy are also under scrutiny.


We have conducted qualitative interviews with 70 imprisoned drug dealers in Norway. They were interviewed in six different prisons. All interviewees had experience with drug distribution in some form, and the sample covered a broad spectrum of drug offenses, from lower-level heroin dealing to large-scale, international smuggling of cocaine, amphetamine and heroin. Most of those interviewed had long histories of substance abuse, and amphetamines or opiates were their primary drugs of choice.


  1. What are the characteristics of imprisoned large-scale drug dealers in Norway?
  2. How is the illegal drug economy organized?
  3. What are the symbolic differences between different illegal drugs (including amphetamines, heroin and cannabis) and drug users?
  4. What stories do large-scale drug dealers tell, and what are their implications?
  5. What would a rational drug policy towards large-scale drug dealing look like?


The project period is from 2012 to 2015. "The project is connected thematically and organizationally to the NFR-funded research project Cannabis: Subculture, Economy and Social Marginality

Victor Lund Shammas (MA Sociology) is in charge of organizing data collection and coding, and he plays a key role in coordinating the project.

Professor Willy Pedersen, Associate Professor Sveinung Sandberg and PhD student Heidi Grundetjern are attached to the project.

Published Sep. 12, 2013 1:06 PM - Last modified Apr. 25, 2016 12:31 PM