Cover: Strategies for a Risky Business

Strategies for a Risky Business

How Drug Dealers Manage Customers, Suppliers and Competitors in Italy, Slovenia and Germany

Published in: International Journal of Drug Policy, v. 31, May 2016, p. 90-98

Posted on May 19, 2016

by Marina Tzvetkova, Mafalda Pardal, Emma Disley, Alice Rena, Sanela Talic, Sarah Forberger


A growing body of literature aims to improve understanding of the operations of drug trafficking markets through conducting interviews with dealers and traffickers. Insight into how these individuals conduct business can provide evidence to inform the efforts by policy makers, law enforcement and practitioners to disrupt illicit markets. This paper aims to make a contribution to this evidence base by extending the number of European countries in which interviews have been conducted with incarcerated drug dealers and traffickers.


It draws on interviews with 135 men convicted of offences related to the distribution or sale of heroin or cocaine and imprisoned in Italy, Slovenia and Germany. The research was conducted as part of the Reframing Addictions Project (ALICE-RAP) funded by the European Commission. The sample was diverse. It included a range of nationalities and some individuals who were members of organised crime groups. The majority of the interviewees were dealers who sold at the retail and street level, but there were some who were importers and wholesalers.


Most dealers in each of the three countries reported having more than one regular supplier, and were able to respond to periods of over and under supply without losing customers. Supply arrangements varied in terms of frequency and quantities bought. Dealers engaged in repeated transactions and their relationships with customers were based on trust and reputation. Dealers aimed to sell to regular customers and to provide drugs of good quality. While dealers sought to maximise their profits by cutting drugs with cutting agents, the quality of drugs that they sold could affect their reputation and thus their profits and position in the market. Lastly, while there are some significant differences in the approach between those involved in organised crime groups and those who are not, and between street dealers and those operating at higher levels of the market, there were striking similarities in terms of the day-to-day operational concerns and modes of relationship management.


Interviewees' arrangements for securing supplies of drugs provide support to the notion that drug markets are resilient and flexible. Our findings correspond with other empirical research in relation to the centrality of trust in the practical operation of supply and sale of drugs. The research highlights some differences, but important similarities between dealers who were part of organised crime groups and those who were not; dealers all faced some common challenges and adopted some common responses to these.

Research conducted by

This report is part of the RAND external publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.