vast majority of drug users are white. This fact has been
true for the entire “war on drugs.” Many whites
live in majority white states. Most whites live in segregated
communities. How do these millions of whites get their drugs?
Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class
by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold is the first
piece of research that I’ve seen that has taken a
serious look at the white drug trade. Specifically, it examines
the white, middle-class, college-student drug trade. It
is a fascinating and highly readable investigation.
Before going into Dorm Room Dealers, it is useful
to have some context for thinking about illicit drugs among
the college-aged population. The rate of illicit drug and
substance use is comparable among white and black youth,
but generally it is slightly lower among blacks. Among 18-to-25
year olds, the 2009 National Survey of Drug Use and Health
reports that 39 percent of whites used an illicit drug in
the past year. For blacks, the rate was 34 percent. Some
of these youth are experimenting with illicit drugs, and
some are fairly regular users. The estimates for regular
users are 23 percent for whites and 21 percent for blacks.
This age group has the highest rate of illicit drug use.
What this means a bit more concretely is that there are
about 5 million white 18-to-25 year olds who are regular
illicit drug users compared to about 1 million black users.
Given that there are roughly five white drug users for every
one black drug user, it is incredible that nearly half of
all people in state prison for drugs are black. This is
an amazing criminal “justice” accomplishment.
It is also a remarkable achievement of our culture that
the strereotype of a drug dealer is a young black male,
when it is fairly certain that at any given time the number
of white dealers outnumbers the number of black dealers.
Room Dealers provides a view into this large and important
but typically missing part of the story of illicit drug
use in America. It shows how young, middle-class, white
drug dealers manage to avoid prison and the stigma of drug
dealing without even trying.
As mentioned above, the college-aged population has the
highest rates of illicit drug use nationally. The students
that the sociologists Mohamed and Fritsvold study do not
challenge this finding. The campus drug dealers, if anything,
struggle with the problem of having too many customers.
Mohamed and Fritsvold report that among these white, middle-class
propensity for illicit drug use . . . was readily apparent
in the seemingly unyielding demand for marijuana within
this network. Throughout the course of the study, there
was never a situation in which a drug dealer at any level
was suffering from a customer shortage or had to actively
seek out customers to support his or her illicit enterprise.
Rather, on several occasions, we observed customers who
were unable to locate an adequate supply of marijuana
and were subsequently mired in the doldrums of “weed
wait.” (p. 20)
Because of the strong demand for drugs, dorm-room dealing
is an easy, low-risk and profitable enterprise for white,
Dorm-room dealing is low-risk because white, middle-class
youth are “anti-targets” in the “war on
drugs.” In other words, they are invisible to law
enforcement because they do not fit the popular stereotype
of a drug dealer, or their drug dealing is consciously ignored
by collegiate authorities. Despite “selling large
enough quantities of marijuana and other drugs to warrant
serious stretches of incarceration under current drug-sentencing
schemes” none of the thirty dealers the authors studied
was ever incarcerated “even when people in positions
of formal authority were clearly aware or otherwise suspected
them of illegal drug trafficking” (p.34). The dorm
room dealers operated almost completely in the open and
. . . dealers carelessly operated out of their apartments
or from on-campus housing. And, with few exceptions, the
majority of their illegal business was on full display
and in plain view upon walking through their front door.
. . . [U]pon arrival to one of our interview and observation
sessions with one of the largest dealers in the sample,
it was noticed that ounces of marijuana, scales, large
sums of cash, customers, and drug paraphernalia were visible
from a relatively busy off-campus beach community street.
One of the larger dealers, Brice, was particularly brazen:
[Brice] was momentarily detained at the checkpoint and
asked by a Border Patrol officer, “You don't have
any marijuana in there, do you?” Of course, as was
usually the case with Brice, he did have pot in the car.
However, almost amusingly and consistent with the notion
that members of this affluent, primarily white drug network
were anti-targets relatively immune from law enforcement
scrutiny even when off of their home turf, Brice boldly
replied, “I'm not that type of person.” (p.
But Brice was, in fact, precisely the type of person who
both uses marijuana heavily and sells large quantities of
On numerous occasions since his graduation, police stopped
Brice for speeding. During each of these stops, he was
in possession of several pounds of marijuana and also,
as was more typical than not for him, under the influence
of the drug at the time. Nonetheless, and characteristic
of the experiences of most of our dealers, during these
stops, his vehicle was never searched, he was never asked
to consent to a search, and he was never arrested. (p.
Thus, if one is white and middle class, one can be a significant
drug user and dealer and be ignored by the “war on
While public law enforcement might be ignorant and oblivious
to the dorm-room dealers, on-campus authorities are in many
cases aware but choose to ignore the dealers’ activities.
On-campus authorities have strong incentives to go this
route. For a university,
a major drug bust is bad for business in two significant
ways. First, in a competitive climate where reputation
is everything, drug arrests and publicly acknowledging
the existence of an on-campus flourishing drug market
clearly would not do much for short-term new student recruitment.
Further, if students like LaCoste who come from well-to-do
families were treated by university officials like garden
variety corner boys, any endowment growth or other capital
development plans specific to their families would most
certainly be dashed. (p. 57)
Universities run the risk of being hurt financially if they
wage a war on the student drug trade. While there is an
intense “war on drugs” off-campus, illicit drug
use is in practice de-criminalized on campus.
Room Dealers is filled with insights about the white,
middle-class drug trade and the many factors that make white,
middle-class youth “anti-targets” in the war
on drugs. One discovery completely surprised the authors.
They did not realize how widespread the abuse of prescription
drugs is. Students recklessly mixed different pills or took
them with alcohol and, even after experiencing serious health
episodes, did not seem to realize the danger they had put
themselves in. One student reports his bad experiences with
with uh Lamictal [a commonly prescribed drug for the treatment
of bipolar disorder], if I drink on that I found out that
I end up having seizures so I don’t drink anymore
on that. I’ve only done it twice and it’s
been a terrible, terrible situation. . . . Adderall, I’ve
taken way too many of those before. That was bad news.
I couldn’t go to sleep for five days, that’s
not good for you. (p. 94)
Prescription drug abuse is rising rapidly and it is already
killing more people than crack cocaine did at crack’s
peak in the early 1990s. But students fail to realize that
they are playing with a loaded gun.
Among 18 to 25 year olds, white youth are two-and-a-half
times as likely as black youth to abuse prescription drugs.
The abuse of drugs like OxyContin kill more people than
crack cocaine and yet, as measured by the intensity of our
policing and prosecution, our criminal justice system views
crack cocaine as the greater harm to society. Mohamed and
when it comes to drug trafficking, there is substantial
bias in the justice system based on, among other things,
whether the offender is dealing in pharmaceuticals or
street drugs. . . . [T]his disparity is not based on any
objective assessment of social harm or threats to public
well being. Rather, it is more likely that the types of
people who are apt to be abusing and trafficking in pharmaceuticals
do not fit the stereotypical drug dealer profile that
has come from the war on drugs and are, therefore, regarded
quite differently by lawmakers and the criminal justice
system. (p. 93)
Room Dealers shows from a new angle that our illicit
drug policy needs comprehensive reform to make it more just
and more effect at protecting the public.
Commentator, Dr. Algernon Austin, PhD, is the Director of
the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, he is the author of Getting It Wrong: How Black Public Intellectuals Are Failing Black
America and Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism
in the Twentieth Century, as
well as scholarly articles in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Qualitative Sociology, the Journal of African American Studies, and Race, Gender and Class.
He blogs at thorainstitute.blogspot.com and The Huffington Post. Click here to
contact Dr. Austin.