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Women in the Drug Economy: A Metasynthesis of the Qualitative Literature

NCJ Number
Journal of Drug Issues Volume: 37 Issue: 4 Dated: Fall 2007 Pages: 805-826
Lisa Maher; Susan L. Hudson
Date Published
22 pages
This article reviews and examines the qualitative research literature on women in the illicit drug economy, and identifies and integrates key themes using the technique of qualitative metasynthesis.
The illicit drug economy is a gender-segmented labor market; within this labor market, while women are resourceful and resilient, they rarely participate above the street level. Results indicated that little has changed since the first research in this area was conducted during the early 1980s. The data provided strong evidence of persistent themes across a number of key areas. A longitudinal perspective on these studies also indicates that over time the analytical approaches used reflect an increasing awareness that gender intersects with culture, race, and class. The qualitative evidence reviewed suggests that the illicit drug economy and street-based drug markets are gender stratified and hierarchical, and that women primarily access and sustain economic roles through their links with men who act as gatekeepers, sponsors, and protectors. Family and kinship ties are important resources for women engaged in drug sales, and successful women dealers appear to have increased access to social capital. Finally, results suggest that while women rely on a diverse range of income sources and juggle different roles, both within the drug economy and in relation to dealing and domestic responsibilities, most women in most drug markets remain confined to low- level and marginal roles. Reasons for this include the gender-stratified and hierarchical nature of the drug economy; the role of men as sponsors, protectors and gatekeepers; the sexualization of women drug users; and the sexualization of roles within the drug economy. While the studies reviewed suggest that gender clearly mediates and shapes the dealing experience, few studies have specifically explored the impact of race/ethnicity, and there is need for further research in this area. Tables, references