Social network analysis in illicit drug markets: Evaluating the feasibility of innovative methodology

Project Supporters:

Colonial Foundation Trust

Drug Type:
image - Public?itok=dD3x 1fF
Project Members
Dr David Bright
Associate Dean
image - 1314146187 Chalmers Jenny 06
Conjoint Senior Lecturer
Ph 02 9385 0189
Project Main Description

A small but growing number of analysts of criminal activity have used social network analysis (SNA) to characterise criminal organisations and produce valuable insights into the operation of illicit markets. The successful conduct of SNA requires data that informs the links or relationships between pairs of individuals within the group. To date analyses have been undertaken with data extracted from offender databases, transcripts of physical or electronic surveillance, written summaries of police interrogations, and transcripts of court proceedings. These data can be expensive, time-consuming and complicated to access and analyse.

This project aimed to determine the feasibility and utility of conducting SNA using a novel source of data: judges’ sentencing comments. Free of charge, publically accessible without the need for ethics clearance, available at the completion of sentencing and summary in nature, these data offer a more accessible and less expensive alternative to the usual forms of data used. The judge’s sentencing comments were drawn from a series of Australian court cases involving members of a criminal group involved in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine during the 1990s.


We demonstrate that judge’s sentencing comments are a fruitful source of data for SNA analysis of criminal networks. Our SNA of an Australian methamphetamine trafficking network (the Kalache network) produced valuable insights into network size, roles, interactions and synergies, structure and leadership, as well as network vulnerabilities to law enforcement intervention.  A key insight proffered by this SNA analysis is that criminal groups operating in the methamphetamine market may be conceptualised as networks, comprised of sub-groups, not only as hierarchies.

Implications for policy: The project has policy implications for the susceptibility of the network to drug law enforcement interventions.  A number of features decreased the susceptibility of the current methamphetamine network to DLE interventions. These included the presence of a loosely connected network, and corrupt officials. The use of multiple clan labs was also protective as it increased the ability and ease with which network operators could move their operations, and attenuated the impact of any one clandestine laboratory seizure. The further presence of role differentiation and replication meant that, with the exception of the leaders and brokers, the removal of a network participant was unlikely to lead to network collapse.

Conversely a number of features of the market increased its susceptibility for disruption. These included the centralisation of power, and high inter-connectedness of three of the managers.

Implications for research: The findings point to productive areas of further research. Our findings with respect to the feasibility and utility of SNA with judges’ sentencing comments need to be extended to identify the pitfalls of using this data. This requires the conduct of parallel social network analyses of a particular criminal group comparing various sources of data. Further work to develop a conceptual framework of criminal networks drawing from network theory is also needed.



  • Bright, D. A., Hughes, C., Chalmers, J., & Grech, K. (2009, December). Social network analysis in illicit drug markets: an innovative methodology. Paper presented at the Illicit Networks Workshop, Wollongong, Australia.
Project Supporters

Colonial Foundation Trust

Project Research Area
Drug Type
Project Status
Date Commenced

Project Contacts

  • Dr David Bright
    Associate Dean

Related Projects

Back to Top