Dealing drugs: gangsters and wannabee ‘gangstas’

The stereotypical drug dealer is a young, inner-city black or Latino gang-banger whose fast and furious, often short life is immersed in the seedy world of illicit drugs and violence. While this image has some basis in fact, it is much more myth than reality.

Using data originally compiled by gang leaders to help manage their organizations, Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh discovered that only a few individuals (the leaders) earned between $50,000 and $130,000 annually in the drug trade. A second tier of sellers (officers) earned approximately $12,000 a year – slightly more than minimum wage – while the lowest level street dealers made less than $2,500 a year for their average 20 hours a week of drug work, an hourly rate significantly below minimum wage. Earning so little money via this illegal activity, it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of drug-selling gang members live at home with their mothers and/or fathers.

Studies of street-level drug dealers indicate that individuals involved in this criminal enterprise move in and out of illegal employment markets. Research in Washington, D.C., concluded that 67 percent of those charged with selling drugs were also gainfully, legally employed at the time of arrest. As Ryan Kings of the Sentencing Project notes, for these individuals, “drug selling was not a specialized industry, and was a complement to, rather than a substitute for legitimate employment.”

Similarly, Levitt and Venkatesh found that 75 to 80 percent of street-level dealers held legitimate, low-paying jobs at some time during the year. These findings suggest that for at least some low-level street dealers, their illegal activity is a way to make ends meet in an inner-city environment where good-paying jobs are few and far between. John Hagedorn, who studied street-level drug dealers in Milwaukee, argues these individuals hold many conventional values, including the core American value of attaining material and monetary success. For Ryan King, “drug dealing can be seen not as the cause of urban decline, but rather as a response to the evaporation of a sustainable employment market with an exodus of manufacturing and commerce from urban areas” that began in the 1960s.

On the other side of the economic divide, typically far removed from the concerns and watchful eyes of law-enforcement personnel, is another group of drug dealers. Sociologists A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik Fritsvold examined a drug-dealing network at a high-tuition ($50,000 a year with room and board), private, Southern California university. The economic, “rational choice” model of crime, as the authors note, suggests that illegal behavior is the result of a careful cost/benefit analysis on the part of offenders. This is why many poor black and Latino adolescents and young adults sell drugs: They need the money to survive. If the economic model of crime falls short in accounting for drug dealing on the part of college students from affluent families, then how can this behavior be explained? Mohamed and Fritsvold offer five “motivations” for this illegal activity.

Motive 1 – to underwrite costs of personal drug use: Most of the student dealers interviewed smoked a great deal of marijuana and viewed selling “herb” as a mechanism for avoiding retail prices for their personal supply. When asked why he sold drugs, one individual stated, “I don’t know; I really just do it to smoke. That’s the only reason I sell pot. Then you just start selling tons of pot. Then, like now, I get to smoke tons of pot.”

Motive 2 – to underwrite other incidental and entertainment expenses: Although most of the dealers interviewed could be classified as “heavy” marijuana users, others rarely smoked the drug. These individuals viewed dealing marijuana as a way to supplement entertainment-related activities. One dealer noted that “when I was a freshman, I drank a lot, so you know the alcohol budget was extensive. And just other stuff, you know: shoes, clothes, whatever. I just had money around, so why not?”

Motive 3 – the spirit of capitalism: Inasmuch as campus drug dealing was often a mechanism for subsidizing one’s good-times income, for more entrepreneurial students, selling marijuana and cocaine was a cash-making opportunity that could not be ignored: “It was an easy way to make money. Because in the (dorms) … my spring semester, a bunch of people got busted and there was nobody dealing, and there was a demand.” One student dealer moved from simple marijuana sales to offering a menu of illicit drugs to his customers.

Motive 4 – ego gratification and the pursuit of status: Mohamed and Fritsvold asked campus drug dealers why they chose a university setting for their illegal activity. All of the dealers responded in terms of ego gratification, status enhancement and the power they wielded over others in terms of supplying them with drugs, or withholding these substances from their customers. On a campus known for its crass materialism, even a dealer who sported a $40,000 car and designer clothes could not easily differentiate himself from other students until he began selling drugs. As one campus drug dealer noted, “If you said, ‘Where’d you get pot? Where can I get pot?’ I’m sure my name would be mentioned.”

Motive 5 – sneaky thrills and being a “gangsta”: For many campus drug dealers, a fundamental motivation for their criminal activity was wannabe gangsterism coupled with the thrill of getting away with an illegal activity. Mohamed and Fritsvold argue that “rich white college drug dealers are not motivated by material need as much as they are the idea that they can outsmart those in formal positions of authority, both within and outside the university setting.” If student drug dealers are caught, their “status” – more accurately, the status of their parents – will likely keep them from being held fully accountable for their transgressions.

When asked if he was fearful of the campus police detecting his criminal activity, one dealer stated that they (the campus police) “can kiss my a__. They can’t touch me. They can’t do anything to me.” The illegal activities of this brazen individual were known to university administrators, with one official stating, “He must have some very influential parents.” This official stated that because of the parents’ status, even though the administration was cognizant of his campus drug dealing, the investigation was being handled with “extreme” caution.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego. He is the co-author (with Steven E. Barkan) of “Myths and Realities of Crime and Justice: What Every American Should Know,” Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2014


Mohamed, R. and E. Fritzvold (2006) “Damn it feels good to be a gangsta: The social organization of the illicit drug trade servicing a private college campus,” Deviant Behavior, 27 (1) pp. 97-125

Hagerdon, J. (1994) “Homeboys, dope fiends, legits, and new jacks,” Criminology 32 (2), pp. 197-219

King, R. (2003) “The economics of drug selling: A review of the research,” The Sentencing Project,

Levitt, S. and S. Venkatesh (2008) “An economic analysis of a drug-selling gang’s finances,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115 (3) pp. 755-789

Venkatesh (2008) “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets,” New York: Penguin Press