Social supply among young cannabis users

Research Period

1 February 2012 – 1 May 2015





Key Words

social supply, drug use, youth, cannabis


Drug market research suggests supply of substances is more nuanced than traditional dealing. Studies all over Europe into the way users obtain cannabis conclude that young people refer to suppliers as friends or friends of friends (Coomber & Turnbull, 2007; Harrison, Erickson, Korf, Brochu, & Benschop, 2007; Hough et al., 2003; Parker, 2000; Potter, 2009; Werse, 2008). In the early 2000s social supply was developed to encompass this social aspect of supply (Parker, 2001). In recent years, different views on social supply have developed. Hough (2003) suggests social supply entails a non-commercial supply of cannabis among non-strangers. However, both the social aspect as well as the non-commercial aspect of social supply are subject to debate (Potter, 2009).

Some authors suggest that a closer look into the social networks surrounding users and suppliers might further develop our understanding of social supply (Parker, 2000; Coomber & Turnbull, 2007). Inspired by this suggestion, our study focuses on the social world of cannabis (Crossley, 2010). This social world encompasses the social network of users and suppliers, who interact with each other and give meaning to supply while interacting. This particular view is rooted in network view on supply, where it is argued not only individual attributes but also type and content of relations as well as the wider structure of the network, influence and shape an individual’s behaviour and attitudes (Scott & Carrington, 2011).

This social world is explored through a personal network study of users and suppliers. Personal network analysis sheds light on respondents perceptions on supply and situates these in the wider relational context (Hennig, Brandes, Pfeffer, & Mergel, 2014). Supply is described as a supply tie that combines two types of relations: a social relation and an exchange relation. Our research is guided by two research questions:

  1. How are active personal networks in which cannabis use and supply is present, composed and structured?
  2. What is the nature of the supply tie between cannabis users and their suppliers?



Based on social network literature as well as drug market research, we developed an instrument that involves a face-to-face interview and participatory mapping (Hogan, Carrasco, & Wellman, 2007). During a computer-assisted interview respondents create their own personal network together with the researcher. The resulting network maps are further explored through a semi-structured interview which focuses on the nature of the supply tie between users and suppliers.

We recruit respondents through a snowball sampling strategy. They are selected based on the following selection criteria:

  1. Between 18 to 25-years old
  2. Used cannabis on at least one occasion in the last three months and/or sold or brokered access to cannabis on at least one occasion in the past six months



The result section of this study explores three aspects which aid our understanding of supply: the individual, the dyadic relation between egos and alters, and the network of relations among alters.

First, individual attributes of egos (respondents) and alters (all people mentioned by a respondent) in personal networks where cannabis is used are considered. The social roles of users and suppliers in personal networks where cannabis use are identified and their subjectivity is discussed. Additionally, the extent to which egos tend to associate with alters who have the same age, gender and user and/or supplier experiences is analysed.

Second, I examine the relational aspects of personal networks where cannabis use is present. The strength of social relations in these personal networks is analysed. Emotional closeness, emotional and practical support is then linked to the social roles as described in the first part of the result section. This analysis is used to reflect on the issue of strong versus weak social relations in a context where cannabis is exchanged. Building further upon the discussion about the quality of social relations, I look into mechanisms of exchange (i.e. reciprocated exchange, one-way exchange, or a combination of both) across ‘very weak’ to ‘very strong’ social relations.

Third, the position of suppliers and the wider structure of the personal network surrounding supplier and user are explored. Structural holes measures inform about the closed or open nature of the broader social network the ego is part of (Burt, 1992). Finally, I put these relations and individual attributes in their social, use and collaborative setting.

In the general conclusions I first develop, based on the empirical results, a definition of social supply as a two-dimensional concept. Second, I look into why supply is perceived as such. I thereby evaluate the continued relevance of social learning and subcultural theories in a theoretical context that tends to emphasise agency. Third, I reflect on a broader  practical relevance of my findings in developing legal, prevention and aid strategies. I conclude with a final reflection on further pathways for network research in drug market studies.



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