Home > The drug economy and youth interventions.

Dillon, Lucy (2019) The drug economy and youth interventions. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 70, Summer 2019, pp. 12-14.

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The launch of The drug economy and youth interventions: an exploratory research project on working with young people involved in the illegal drugs trade, was held on 30 April 2019.1 The study was carried out by Dr Matt Bowden of the Technological University Dublin and is published by CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign. As well as a presentation on the report’s key findings, the launch included:

  • The findings of research into the views and experiences of drug dealers by Dr Fiona O’Reilly
  • The experiences of those delivering interventions with young people affected by the ‘drug economy’:
    • Angela Birch of the Ballymun Regional Youth Resource discussing the Easy Street project
    • Karl Ducque and Gary Lawlor of the Targeted Response to Youth (TRY) intervention
  • A closing statement by John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. 

Drug economy and youth interventions

The drug economy and youth interventions report stems from a 2016 study on drug-related intimidation that identified a need to explore the issue of early intervention with young people involved in drug distribution in Ireland.2 The report presents the findings of an exploratory study based on a review of the Irish and international literature on violence and intimidation in the illegal drug trade and in-depth qualitative interviews with seven practitioners working in the Dublin area.


Literature review

The literature review depicts an environment in which Irish drug markets have become more complex over the last couple of decades. There are a number of reasons given for this growing complexity, including the changing profile of drug use to polydrug use; the open nature of dealing and use in public places; the debt-based nature of distribution; and a greater association of the market with violence and intimidation. A working definition of intimidation cited in the report ‘is “a serious, insidious and coercive behaviour intended to force compliance of another person against their will” … involving verbal threats or actual physical violence’ (p. 10).


Experiences of working with young people

The main body of the report presents the findings of the qualitative work. Those interviewed had all worked with young people and families in the community who had experienced drug-related problems, were involved in some form of drug selling or holding, and had experienced some associated violence or threat of violence. They varied in their level of experience (from 7 to 35 years of working in the field) and were based in different kinds of projects – youth work, drug teams, social work, youth diversion, and social work. Their narratives explored the context in which they were delivering their services, the nature of the problem faced by young people with whom they worked, and possible ways of addressing these challenges.


Key findings

Key findings are outlined below.


Nature of the problem

  • The drug economy provides opportunities for young people to access work; the structure of drug distribution networks provides a range of roles from various levels of dealers to those who ‘hold’ or ‘carry’ drugs. Working within this economic structure enables young people to access cash and consumer goods. This, it was argued, provides a more attractive alternative to ‘precarious’ labour in, for example, the service industry: ‘Drug selling is regarded as an alternative to labour market participation: seen as a type of entrepreneurship in an unregulated economy’ (p. 17). Economic terms were often used by participants when describing the system of distribution – labour force participation, qualifications, skills, etc.
  • Drug distribution is based on a financial system of credit or ‘fronting’ – recouping of debts operates under the threat of violence. Drug-related intimidation and drug debt intimidation are described as central to how these distribution networks are structured and feed into an environment where ‘dominant drug dealers appear to rule within communities’ (p. 30).
  • In an environment where drug use was described as ‘normalised’ and distribution structured around peer-to-peer networks, initiation into the drug economy was found to go unrecognised at times. The term ‘grooming’ was used by some participants to describe the process whereby a young person starts to do favours for those involved in distribution in return for small amounts of cash. As they show they can be trusted, they can then progress to holding money, drugs or weapons. While this is sometimes in exchange for cash, movement into these more involved roles in the distribution network can be required as a way of paying a drug debt.
  • While intimidation was predominantly a male experience, females were far from immune. The author identifies a particular concern about young women being asked to engage in sexual activity to expunge debts. 

How to tackle the problem

  • Based on the participants’ experiences of working with young people in the community, a gap was identified in current drug education and prevention practice. It was suggested that there should be an increased focus on educating young people about the nature of the drug economy and how it uses credit and debt as an economic bond that often leads to intimidation and violence. This was key where drug distribution is peer-to-peer – young people need to understand that drugs are not free, by accepting them without immediate payment they are entering an economic bond that will require payment of some kind.
  • A recurring theme was that young people involved in drug distribution are not ‘untouchable’. Service providers have found ways to engage with these young people and help them desist from their role in the drug economy. Central to this is the quality of the relationship that a worker has with the young person. Where this is based on a common understanding and respect, it is possible to have a positive impact on the young person’s decision-making and to support a desistance process.
  • In a context where the drug economy offers young people access to income, there was a call for access to ‘real’ or ‘proper’ educational and work pathways to be made available as an alternative.
  • The report argues that young people who live in the areas where a drug economy exists need to have more of a voice in the narrative that defines their realities. The ‘gangland’ narrative predominates in the media, which is unhelpful when trying to find solutions to the problems being experienced by young people in these areas. It also contributes to the stigmatisation of young people from certain areas, irrespective of any involvement in the drug economy.
  • There was a call for improved early intervention through child and family preventive services, as a way of addressing intergenerational poverty.
  • For policing and criminal justice responses, participants identified a need for authorities to be able to target the assets of those involved in the drug economy using ‘a model similar to the Criminal Assets Bureau, except working on a micro level’ (p. 28); and to introduce some way of measuring social harm and applying it within the criminal justice responses. 

Easy Street and Targeted Response to Youth

At the launch of the report, there were presentations from two projects that work to support young people involved in or at risk of becoming involved in the drug economy – Easy Street project in Ballymun, Dublin3 (running since 2009) and the Targeted Response to Youth (TRY) on Donore Avenue, Dublin4 (first piloted in March 2017). The evidence-based approach taken in these projects is identified in the report as a suitable model for working with young people. Broadly speaking, both projects take an outreach and bridging approach, in which youth workers make contact at street level, build trust, and then act as a ‘connecting node’ or ‘host’ to enable young people to extend their social networks beyond those associated with the drugs economy and to build on positive traits. They work with individual young people and broader networks of young people in the community. They also support them in accessing education or work pathways, with the aim of either preventing them engaging in or desisting from the drug economy. While neither project has carried out an outcome study, both described positive experiences of working with young people within this model. Particular challenges they faced were in securing adequate funding to meet the level of demand for their work and having access to viable education and employment opportunities for their young people.


Concluding comment

There were three recurring themes throughout the presentations and the subsequent discussion. First, people were conflicted about engaging with people who were involved in drug distribution in their communities. However, it was explained that doing so was about understanding their behaviour with the aim of prevention; it was not about excusing their behaviour. The second recurring theme for practitioners, including John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy Prison, was the need for any engagement to be structured around a strong relationship with an advocate, characterised by trust and understanding. Third was the message that young people involved in the drug economy or at risk of getting involved were reachable. If there were to be viable educational and employment pathways open to them, it was believed that many would desist from the drug economy.



1    Bowden M (2019) The drug economy and youth interventions: an exploratory research project on working with young people involved in the illegal drugs trade. Dublin: CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/30487/

2    Connolly J and Buckley L (2016) Demanding money with menace: drug-related intimidation and community violence in Ireland. Dublin: Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25201/

3    For further information on the Easy Street project, contact Angie Birch of Ballymun Regional Youth Reach Resource on angie.birch@bryr.ie and http://www.bryr.ie/

4    For further information on the TRY project, contact Fearghal Connolly, Project Coordinator, Donore Community Drug & Alcohol Team fearghal@donorecdat.ie and https://www.donorecdat.ie/

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