The Black Commentator: An independent weekly internet magazine dedicated to the movement for economic justice, social justice and peace - Providing commentary, analysis and investigations on issues affecting African Americans and the African world.
Dec 9, 2010 - Issue 405

White Privilege and Illicit Drugs
By Dr. Algernon Austin, PhD Guest Commentator



The 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?

Dorm 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.

Dorm 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 college students.

The 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, middle-class youth.

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 with impunity.

. . . 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. (p. 138)

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. 30)

But Brice was, in fact, precisely the type of person who both uses marijuana heavily and sells large quantities of marijuana.

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. 31)

Thus, if one is white and middle class, one can be a significant drug user and dealer and be ignored by the “war on drugs.”

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.

Dorm 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 pharmaceuticals:

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 Fritsvold conclude,

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)

Dorm 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. Guest 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 and The Huffington Post. Click here to contact Dr. Austin.