Women’s Evolving Roles in Drug Trafficking in the United States: New Conceptualizations Needed for 21st-Century Markets

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Drugs and crime research and theory in the United States originated after President Nixon declared the first War on Drugs in 1971. This research agenda promised to reveal the scope, dynamics, and impact of the drugs–crime relationship, thus promising solutions for the country’s drug problems. The initial focus was on drug trade violence and, as a result, produced scholarship mostly on men’s involvement in drug distribution, purchasing, and related crimes. It paid little attention to women’s involvement and failed to consider how gender might shape the drugs–crime relationship. By the early 1980s, however, studies began to appear on women’s experiences and addressed the role of gender in U.S. street-based illegal markets for crack cocaine and heroin. These studies revealed women’s relative powerlessness or supporting roles to domineering males in illegal, street-based drug markets. Today, drugs of concern in the U.S. originate and are sold and purchased through both legal and illegal channels that often work in tandem. This interplay requires us to rethink the drugs–crime relationship. Our article seeks to provoke new thinking and research on how 21st-century drug trends might reshape the gendered nature of drug selling across both legal and illegal markets and the gray area in between. In specific terms, we review the nature of women’s involvement in newer drug markets and consider how their involvement differs from that of men and how theory and research might move forward in addressing these changes. Our conclusions, and those reached by others in this issue, speak to the centrality of gender scholarship in research and policy on drugs and crime currently and into the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-355
Number of pages17
JournalContemporary Drug Problems
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Law


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