The American Dream Perverted


The Cocaine Kids, by Terry Williams, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 140 pages, $16.30

President Bush and national drug czar Bill Bennett have gotten lots of political mileage from demonizing drug dealers. The Cocaine Kids, a new book by sociologist Terry Williams, makes the case that "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

This slim volume, subtitled "The Inside Story of a Teenage Drug Ring," focuses on the lives of eight young cocaine dealers in New York City between 1982 and 1986. The author spent "some two hours a day, three days a week, hanging out with these kids in cocaine bars, after-hours spots, discos, restaurants, crack houses, on street corners, in their homes and at family gatherings." The resulting story is an engrossing journey into a subculture most Americans will never experience—and just as well. It is a desperate and tawdry existence.

But what we learn above all is that the cocaine kids are mostly just kids. Williams has succeeded in obliterating the easy stereotype. These are ordinary teenagers struggling to impress girls and worrying about their favorite baseball team (the Mets). Like other Americans, they measure success by material wealth. Our current drug laws present an extraordinary opportunity for their enrichment.

But while they make huge sums of money, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, very little of it sticks to their fingers. These immature kids squander almost all of what they make on their own drug consumption and continuous "partying." The only member of the ring who managed to accumulate any wealth quit after five years to open a legitimate business. The ring's Colombian connection, however, reaped enormous profits—an estimated $8 million through the kids' efforts.

These kids aren't without values. They just live in a different world. While all of the kids snort cocaine regularly, Williams reports that the use of crack is generally frowned upon: "Most dealers see crack smokers as obsessive consumers who cannot take care of business; crack users, they say, tend to become agitated, quickly lose control and concentration, and take one dose after another at the expense of everything else."

The crack smoke itself is considered so precious that users go to bizarre lengths to preserve it. Williams describes regulars at one South Bronx crack house who are known as "balloon heads." They blow their excess smoke into a balloon, holding it closed with a finger until they are ready to inhale again. Who really believes they'll be deterred by "user accountability"?

The book provides no indication that current drug laws or law enforcement are having any noticeable impact on the cocaine trade. In fact, Williams points out that the rise of the cocaine kids was an unintended consequence of an earlier drug war.

New York's harsh "Rockefeller laws" mandated a prison term for anyone over 18 in possession of an illegal drug. This led heroin dealers to use kids as runners. Cocaine dealers simply followed the pattern. Williams writes: "Young people not only avoid the law but are, for the most part, quite trustworthy. They are also relatively easy to frighten and control."

The Cocaine Kids reveals the folly of our current drug laws and helps make the case for decriminalization or legalization. Legalizing the sale of most drugs to adults would reduce crime and corruption virtually overnight by disempowering the drug cartels and impoverishing drug dealers.

How will legalization affect the cocaine kids? It will take away their bailiwick and deprive them of their livelihood. But almost all of them eventually end up broke anyway.

Legalization won't help teenagers who are undereducated and underqualified. But it can save them from the temptation to deal in drugs by removing the lure of great wealth that currently beckons them. And it can greatly reduce the power of drug-financed gangs to influence kids in our inner cities.

Readers of The Cocaine Kids will no doubt conclude that a decent society shouldn't produce children like this. Their story is the American dream perverted. Readers may also conclude that a decent society shouldn't tempt children with the kind of money that results from current drug policies.

Richard Dennis is creator of the Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award for Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform.