Casper has lived a life out straight out of Pulp Fiction. Over a 26-year career selling illicit drugs across the United States, he has gone from peddling nickel bags of heroin on street corners to running interstate trafficking networks, then back to scraping quarters for the bus fare. Since the age of 15 he has used and sold drugs, battled a heroin addiction, held up police at gunpoint, lived destitute in cheap motels, and bought BMWs in cash.
“I’ve always enjoyed breaking the rules,” Casper* tells me.
Recently released from a North Carolina prison, the 41-year-old is on parole for a drug trafficking charge and has agreed to speak to me over the phone. “Once I realized I could do something simple like sell drugs and make money without having to punch a clock or have anyone tell me what to do, that was the lifestyle that I wanted. I wanted to be my own boss.”
But this life comes at a price. According to many politicians, law enforcement and even parents who have suffered the death of a child, drug dealers like Casper are to blame for the mounting number of overdose deaths.
In line with this, many states have adopted harsher penalties for drug sellers in recent years, including murder charges against people who distribute drugs that contribute to an overdose death. The justification for these new laws is reminiscent of the rationale behind mandatory minimums, three-strike laws, and other policies that were once trumpeted as deterrents to drug-law violations, yet have manifestly failed to dampen a vast illicit drug market.
Although Casper’s experience isn’t representative of all dealers, our conversation reveals much about what drives people to sell drugs, how dealers respond to risks such as harsher sentences or customer deaths, and what, if anything, would motivate them to leave the trade.
Casper comes from a low-income Caucasian family in New England. While he emphasizes how much he enjoys his chosen career, a lack of attractive alternatives also played a role in his choices.
When Casper was in high school, with money often hard to come by, he began selling “party” drugs at rave parties. He developed a knack for the hustle of dealing, and once out of school, sought a new base of customers in budget motels.
“I’d pack a bag of clothing and toiletries, move into a cheap motel for a few days to sell, then move onto the next hotel and the next, until the drugs ran out,” he explains.
“I always drove with all the drugs in my car. If any cops started following, my friend might start speeding or weaving to distract the cop and get pulled over.”
Later he moved to North Carolina and enlisted friends to help him traffic drugs, mostly heroin, across state lines. They’d rent a couple of cars, drive several hours to a warehouse where the drugs were processed (usually in Philadelphia or New England), and head back down south to sell the goods at higher prices.
Once homeward bound they drove caravan-style, with the car containing the drugs out front and the other car following behind to watch for police. “I always drove with all the drugs in my car,” Casper explains. “If any cops started following, my friend might start speeding or weaving to distract the cop and get pulled over, but he never had drugs in his car so they would have to let him go.”
Casper describes these trafficking missions as “exhilarating.”
Selling drugs also offers an opportunity to provide for his family at a level that he hadn’t imagined possible given his background. “I can’t provide for my family if I’m working at McDonalds,” he says. “So why not do something that makes more money, something I’m good at, something that’s exciting? I want my family to be as happy and comfortable as I am.”
Although his description of drug dealing as an exciting entrepreneurial opportunity somewhat irks me, I find our conversation illuminating. To reduce overdose deaths, we need policy solutions that accurately reflect how drug users and sellers respond to risk and reward, so I listen closely as Casper explains what he likes about his work.
There is quite a lot that he likes about it—in fact, he spends a good deal of our interview boasting about his exploits. Clearly he loves money, adventure and women, and the drug trade rakes in all three.
Prison as an Advantageous Risk
I am eventually forced to interrupt his adventure narrative to bring up the negative aspects of selling drugs, such as the risk of prison. He admits that he has spent 13 of the past 26 years behind bars, but when I ask if 13 years is a high price to pay, he laughs.
“Prison is a risk you take,” he says. “You have to accept it. No one wants to go to prison, but it’s considered a risk of the trade. If it does happen, people use it to their advantage.”
In fact, he explains, dealers often make more money running a drug network from inside prison than from outside. Prison, the way he describes it, is like a giant game of Risk; the building and yard are carved into territories controlled by different gangs, who network and create strategic alliances to seize control of the most coveted slices of terrain.
“Whoever controls the fence [where drugs and messages are thrown into the prison from outside] has the power and the money,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to wait years for the opportunity to control the fence, so a longer prison sentence isn’t necessarily a bad thing… the more time you serve in prison, the more opportunities you have to be [financially] successful.”
Many times, Casper says, he walked out of prison a richer man than he walked in.
I probe further. So if prison is undesirable, but also potentially advantageous, how do he and other dealers respond to laws that threaten them with more prison time, such as being charged with murder if a customer overdoses?
“I become more careful, maybe sell smaller bags, move around more, change my number more,” he says. “But I don’t stop selling. Even if I am in prison, I know I can still provide for my family.”
Overdose and Responsibility
“But wait,” I say, seizing the opportunity to turn our conversation towards overdose deaths, I can understand his desire to provide for his own family, even if it means they suffer by losing him for periods of incarceration. But what about other people’s families, the ones with children dying from the drugs he sells? As someone who has struggled with heroin addiction for years, Casper should understand the challenges of problematic drug use. Doesn’t he worry about bringing those hardships to other people?
The tone of our interview changes abruptly. Hearing silence on the line, I half expect Casper to respond to my question with anger, but he doesn’t. Instead, for the first time since we have started talking, he appears to struggle for words.
“I’ve lost so many people to overdose,” he says finally. “A couple of years ago I was losing five people a month. My social media looked like an obituary.”
Speaking hesitantly, he describes days of binging on drugs during which he introduced friends to IV drug use, even helped them get the first shot into their veins. On more than one occasion, he learned some months later that one of these people had died of overdose. He also admits to having sold drugs to people who died within hours of the transaction.
“It takes a piece out of me,” he says after a long pause. “I am strong in many ways but I do not have the courage to look their family members in the eyes and say I’m sorry.”
Casper says that these days, when so much of the drug supply is adulterated with fentanyl, a drug 50 times more potent than heroin, it is common for dealers to sell heroin or cocaine, which they bought from other suppliers, without knowing the strength of the drug. When a customer doesn’t know the strength of what they are using, overdose is more common.
“How they use it—if they mix it with something else or can’t handle the strength—is not your problem.”
I ask him if these deaths ever cause him to consider another career path.
“Yes—no—kind of,” he says. “When someone dies I feel horrible. I tell myself I am going to do things differently, sell smaller doses. But my own addiction [to heroin] gets ahold of me and I can’t think of anything else except that I need the money and selling drugs is the only thing I know how to do.”
He explains that since he often uses the drugs he sells, he thinks that if he can handle the drug, then other people can too.
“Of course no one wants anyone to die from a drug you give them,” Casper says. “But you are just selling them a drug they asked for, a drug they would be sick without. How they use it—if they mix it with something else or can’t handle the strength—is not your problem.”
Part of me is bothered that he doesn’t take more responsibility. But another part of me thinks: Does the CEO of Anheuser Busch stay up at night tossing and turning with thoughts of drunk driving fatalities? Does the head of Smith & Wesson feel personally responsible when someone uses one of his guns to mow down a room of innocent people? Likely not. They all probably have similar thoughts: I’m just selling a product that people want. It’s not my fault when someone uses it irresponsibly.
Society does not hold most individuals or companies responsible when a customer misuses a product, unless the seller knowingly distributed a faulty product. Because illicit drugs are manufactured in unregulated environments far from where they are sold, few street-level sellers know the true contents. But what does this lack of information mean in terms of potential solutions to reduce overdose deaths?
Prohibition Creates an Alluring Thrill
For years, as a writer and advocate for drug policy reform, I have said that people start selling drugs for two reasons—either to support a drug habit or for lack of economic alternatives. But although addiction and poverty each played a role in Casper’s career choice, there is clearly a third motive for him—he loves the thrill of it.
Casper has been using and selling drugs for 26 years. He has served over a decade in prison. He has lost friends and family to tainted drug supplies. He has played a hand in multiple overdoses and has come close to death several times himself, yet he is still using and selling. Why?
Because the drug war, the way our militarized police force hunts traffickers, generates exactly the kind of danger and thrilling opportunity for fast money that people like Casper crave. To apply the term “addiction” to certain people’s relationships with drug dealing is just as legitimate as it is for gambling, that other adrenaline-soaked pursuit. Many police, too, have told me how they love the buzz and adventure of pursuing the “bad guys.”
Police or prison won’t stop people from selling illicit and dangerously adulterated drugs. But neither will treatment centers and social programs suffice. We also need to take away the sexy part. We need to kill the thrill. We need to legalize and regulate drugs so that everything about them, from how they are made to where they are sold, is boring.
“If the government legalized drugs, it would destroy the business. But there is no way I would stop selling voluntarily.”
Legalization is not an easy route. Both drug dealers and law enforcement departments have much to lose if drugs become legal—billions of dollars, for a start—and both will fight hard to keep the status quo. Police are fighting for their territory right now. In response to public sentiment towards rehabilitating drug users rather than incarcerating them, law enforcement is pushing for harsher laws against drug sellers.
It’s a brilliant strategy for self-preservation. But it will also lead to more overdoses. As soon as we lock up one dealer, people desperate for drugs will seek out a new one, and every new supply comes with a higher risk of overdose because people simply don’t know the strength of the new drug or what adulterates it might contain.
The only way to ensure consistent quality of drug supply, which will lower overdose deaths, is to legalize drugs. The only way to destroy the illicit drug market is to legalize.
Even Casper admits, at the end of our interview, that besides death, legalization is the only thing that can stop him from selling drugs.
“If the government legalized drugs, it would destroy the business,” he said. “But there is no way I would stop selling voluntarily. I enjoy what I do. I experience joys and sorrows on a level most people don’t get to feel.”
Legalization won’t solve all our problems, but it would end, in one fell swoop, this senseless, deadly war that keeps drug dealers and cops locked in perpetual combat over guns, gangs and glory.
*Name has been changed.