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Dorm Room Dealers: A Peek into the Drug World of the White and Upwardly Mobile

Fascinating new book explores why college kids on the path to success would peddle pot or pills. Answer: They're not much at risk -- they're rich and white.
 
 
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Reviewed: " Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class," by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold (2010, Lynne Reinner Publishers, 197 pp., $49.95 HB)

Whom do you picture when you read the phrase "drug dealer"? It's probably not the subjects of this book. They're white, upper-middle class and beyond, upwardly mobile college students blithely enmeshed in a web of criminality -- drug use and sales -- that, for them at least, goes unnoticed, and even when noticed, largely unpunished.

And that really irks Mohamed and Fritsvold, a pair of Southern California sociologists who gained entrée into a network of drug sellers and users centered on a private college in San Diego and then spent six years interviewing and observing them as they partied hearty, gobbled and swapped pills, and peddled dope with reckless abandon. It's not, as the authors make clear, that they wish their student subjects were punished with the same heavy hand awaiting a poor black kid slinging crack in on an inner city street corner.

In fact, Mohamed and Fritsvold make equally clear that they view US drug policies as harsh and counterproductive, in no small part because of the race and class biases they so inarguably exhibit. Healthy chunks of "Dorm Room Dealers" are devoted to delineating in detail just how racially skewed and cleaved by class the application of American drug laws are. That's what really irks the authors.

And that partially answers the questions the authors posed at the beginning of the book. Why do privileged college students -- who have everything to lose and little to gain -- choose to sell drugs? Well, because they can do so with almost total impunity. They are not the target of the drug war. They're the wrong color and the wrong class. They essentially get a free pass -- from police, who ignore them; from college administrators, who don't want to upset their parents; from doctors, who are happy to prescribe them whatever pills they desire... because they are the children of "good people," i.e. white and wealthy people.

Mohamed and Fritsvold show repeatedly the reckless abandon with which their subjects went about their business: Dope deals over the phone with uncoded messages, driving around high with pounds of pot in the car, doing drug transactions visible from the street, selling to strangers, smuggling hundreds of pills across the Mexican border. These campus dealers lacked even the basics of drug dealer security measures, yet they flew under the radar of the drug warriors.

Even when the rare encounter with police occurred, these well-connected students skated. In one instance, a dealer got too wasted and attacked someone's car. He persuaded a police officer to take him home in handcuffs to get cash to pay for the damages. The cop ignored the scales, the pot, the evidence of drug dealing, and happily took a hundred dollar bill for his efforts. In another instance, a beach front dealer was the victim of an armed robbery. He had no qualms about calling the police, who once again couldn't see the evidence of dealing staring them in the face and who managed to catch the robbers. The dealer wisely didn't claim the pounds of pot police recovered and didn't face any consequences.

Even when the rare arrest for drug dealing occurred, these folks emerged relatively unscathed. With daddy's money and daddy's lawyers, serious felony charges evaporate. One dealer who could have gone to prison for years ended up with probation for a misdemeanor, which was subsequently wiped from his record. Ah, privilege -- ain't it sweet?

The lack of consequences for breaking drug laws may help explain the students' almost universal lack of interest in drug law reform. These student dope-slingers were not SSDP types. Only one of the two dozen or so dealers watched by Mohamed and Fritsvold expressed any interest in changing the laws. Why should these folks care about reforming the drug laws? They appear to be irrelevant to their lives. Perhaps if these privileged students were subjected to the wrath of the drug war the same way their poorer, darker-skinned counterparts were, they and their powerful parents might begin to feel compelled to address the drug laws. Until then, not so much.

These student dealers were mostly vending pot, with a few offering cocaine and ecstasy as sidelines. There was no mention of heroin or methamphetamines. One finding that surprised the authors was the prevalence of the pill culture. Students were gobbling down Valium, Xanax, Oxycontin, Lorcet, Vicodin, Adderall and Ritalin like crazy, swapping or selling excess pills, lying to doctors to get prescriptions, even smuggling in loads obtained in Tijuana strip joints.

The pill-poppers felt even less like criminals than the illicit drug dealers did. All of the students were able to rationalize their lawbreaking, in part, the authors suggest, because they never really self-identified as dope dealers. After all, dope dealers live in the inner city, are poor, and are a different color. For the subjects of "Dorm Room Dealers," collegiate dope-dealing was incidental, a passing phase on their road to mainstream success as realtors, upper management types, and business owners. They were invested in conventional lives and careers, and, as follow up interviews suggest, as a group they are now doing quite well.

"Dorm Room Dealers" is a valuable contribution to the ethnography of drug use and drug selling and is an interesting read, too. But at $50 for the hardback, you'll probably want to check it out of your campus library or wait for the paperback.

Read more of Phillip S. Smith's work at the Drug War Chronicle .

 
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