How Sweet a Deal?


Do drug dealers sell drugs because they can't get real work? Would jobs programs reduce the lure of drug dealing?

A Rand Corp. research team led by economist Peter Reuter studied drug dealers in Washington, D.C., and concluded that not only are most dealers gainfully employed but their drug earnings are less than most people believe.

Rand researchers questioned 186 men convicted of possessing or selling drugs in the District of Columbia and currently on probation. Sixty-four percent were working at the time of the interview, earning, on average, $7.00 an hour. (Sixty percent were employed full time.) Another 11 percent were either in school or job-training courses. Of the dealers who were unemployed, 95 percent had had legitimate jobs in the past. Only 11 percent admitted receiving government benefits, including welfare, food stamps, and Social Security.

Those surveyed had a median drug-dealing income of $2,000 a month or about $30 a hour, four times as much as they made in legitimate employment. Those who made more, notes the report, tended to have "entrepreneurship and general hustle in legitimate work and nondrug crime."

Though a $30-an-hour wage seems high, most dealers sold drugs only part time because of the risks. On average, 200 drug-related murders occur in Washington, D.C., each year, exposing a drug dealer to a 1.4-percent chance of being killed. (By contrast, each year the average Washington, D.C., policeman faces a 1-in-1,000 chance of being murdered.)

Because most drug dealers already have jobs, the authors contend, "job creation, even of relatively high-paying jobs, may do little to reduce willingness to participate in drug markets." Instead of jobs programs, the Rand researchers suggest that further study of how "young, urban minority males with poor earnings prospects" judge risks might well provide the information needed to reduce the attractiveness of the illicit drug trade.