Who Becomes a Drug Dealer?


It’s time to talk about people who sell drugs. While the national conversation is trending towards a more humane approach to people who use drugs, sellers are still portrayed as greedy criminals who “profit off the misery of others.” We hear stories of dealers peddling drugs to children, giving out free samples to hook new customers, or showing up at recovery meetings to tempt people to relapse. We even see many prosecutors charge drug dealers with murder when a customer overdoses on their product. Although there are many drug sellers who have committed deplorable acts to win customers or expand their markets, this is not the whole picture of most people who sell drugs.

As with most issues, reality is not black and white. The line between user and dealer is often blurred, with many people starting off as users but then selling as their habit grows more expensive or other income sources dry up. The opposite can also happen; sometimes people who sell drugs begin using their own product and wind up addicted as well.

Take the example of Jeffrey Matthews (name changed). A white kid from Minneapolis, Jeffrey started selling weed at 14 years old, mostly because everyone around him was doing it. After his parents separated, he ran around with kids from the neighborhood that were older and getting into drugs. The boys were family to each other, since few had strong ties at home.

“My first supplier was my girlfriend's stepfather, and he was like a father-figure to me,” Matthews explains. “He taught me a lot about being a man of character and integrity, always talking about the ‘principle.’ Like ‘it ain't about the money, it's the principle.’ He was an old-school cat from down south. He also taught me how to box, shoot and clean a pistol, roll good joints, sell drugs, and more. As I got older, I got into selling anything to make money. First some prescription shit, hallucinogenics, and party drugs; later on coke/crack and heroin. As my drug habits shifted to ‘harder’ stuff over the years, I became essentially a subsistence dealer.”

Although Jeffrey’s drug habit would lead him to periods of homelessness, after years of struggle he found recovery and harm reduction, which helped him stop using or selling drugs. Today he works at a nonprofit helping people living with HIV/AIDS and is a passionate and involved member of his community. Though the crimes he committed could have earned him years in prison, he was never caught, and thus avoided many of the collateral consequences that can keep a person stuck in the revolving door of prison and drugs.

Jamal Robinson (name changed), a black man from Durham, North Carolina, was not so fortunate. Like Jeffrey, poverty and peer pressure pushed him into drug sales as a young teen. But unlike Jeffrey, he was caught and imprisoned on multiple occasions, the consequences of which made it harder and harder to find work outside the drug trade.

“I started peddling drugs because I was poor and barely had a dollar in my pocket,” he says. “I sold drugs because of necessity, food, clothes and shelter. To help my mother and little sisters when needed.”

Robinson tried many times to stop selling drugs, but because he had a criminal record, he was rarely called for a job interview. What work he did obtain never paid enough to make ends meet and he was often mistreated by his employers, who knew it would be difficult for him to leave and find other jobs. He entered a cycle: he would work a low-wage job until the bills had piled up so high he had to find something else, then he’d start selling drugs again, get arrested, serve time, and come out with nothing. Then the cycle began anew. The longer his criminal record, the harder the attempts to find work at a living wage, and the more selling drugs became a survival necessity.

“Some people sell drugs to save money and invest in a business so that they don’t have to beg for a job,” he said. “Some people sell to move their momma and family out of the ghetto. There are many reasons people take the risk, but mainly, it’s because there are no decent jobs available and people are tired of trying to do the right thing and just getting the door slammed in their faces.”

Women also get caught up in the cycle of selling drugs. For many poor women without education, selling drugs is a preferred alternative to selling their bodies. Eva Jackson (name changed), a black woman from New York City, knows a thing or two about that choice. As a child, she was taken from her mother and placed in foster care, but she ran away at seven years old because her foster mother was abusive. Homeless on the streets of New York City, she slept in the subway and ate out of restaurant dumpsters. A relative took her in sometimes, but only allowed Eva to sleep outside on the porch. When police or social services would catch Eva, they sent her back to foster care, but she would run away again. At 13 years old, Eva found her biological mother and the two started living together. To pay the rent and get money for drugs, Eva’s mother taught her daughter how to be a sex worker. For a couple of years Eva sold her body on the streets until finally she couldn’t take it anymore and started selling drugs instead. Selling drugs allowed her to stop sex work, but it also meant frequent run-ins with the law. Each encounter and consequent lock-up meant losing everything she had gained, so as soon as she was released from incarceration, she would start selling again.

Jeffrey, Jamal, and Eva never became rich off selling drugs. They were usually homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and each sale only meant food for that day. They all dreamed of the day they would stop, either through recovery, starting a business, or living wage work. Jeffrey, as a white man with no felony record (though he committed many crimes that would have earned him felonies), was successfully able to stop selling drugs and build a new life for himself as a respected member of his community. Jamal and Eva, both black and with records littered with felonies, have not yet been able to break out of that cycle. Both are currently incarcerated on seller-related charges.

The first take-away from these stories of drug sellers is how similar they are to stories of people who use drugs. Necessity – whether the need to self-medicate or survive – often drives a person to use or sell drugs. Peer pressure and environment also play a large role. Most people make genuine attempts to stop, but are driven to relapse through limited choices, poverty or a system that seems designed for them to fail.

The second take-away is that our attempts to solve the drug problem through capture and punishment often serve to perpetuate the cycle. The great irony of a system that bars someone from employment, education or housing for committing a crime is that it drives people to commit more crimes - selling drugs in particular. The more we insist on branding formerly incarcerated people with a scarlet letter, insisting that this knowledge makes us safer, the less we are actually safe.

Maybe it’s an American tendency or maybe it’s just human, but we love to divide people into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Frankly I think most of us are grown enough to realize that these easy categories only exist in movies. There are many complicated reasons for why people use or sell drugs, but we cannot simply drive a wedge between them, painting one group as worthy of sympathy and the other as not. Some people who sell drugs do terrible things. Some people who use drugs do terrible things. Some people who have never touched an illicit drug do terrible things. Life is messier than we want to admit. But just as we have begun to understand that providing resources to people who struggle with drug addiction is far more effective than locking them away, we also need to recognize that this exact solution exists for people who sell drugs. With strong school systems, living wage jobs and opportunities to become meaningful contributors to society, far fewer people would choose to sell drugs. This is where we should concentrate our efforts – not on building more prisons or charging dealers with manslaughter when a customer overdoses on their product. As long as poor living conditions persist, for every dealer we arrest, another will quickly step in to fill his place.

It is foolish to claim that while we can’t arrest our way out of the problem of drug users, we can arrest our way out of the problem of drug sellers. At best that is wishful thinking and at worst it is an attempt to bolster a for-profit prison industry that stands to lose money as treatment-over-incarceration policies cause prison population to decline. Debates about whom to incarcerate and for how long are not just about justice or public safety; there are enormous financial incentives to keep prisons full. Selling drugs is not the only way to profit off the misery of others.

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